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Mr. Garnier: I shall not give way because the hon. Gentleman has had one go already and he may wish to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
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I want to endorse the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), those of my hon. Friend the shadow Attorney-General and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). Those three speeches encapsulate our anxiety that nothing should be done to encourage the inhibition of free speech. I also include the remarks of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). The Bill should do nothing to inhibit free speech and robust criticism of other people's thoughts and religious views. The place for religion to answer is on the page and in the pulpit. The law should allow that to happen.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab): I declare an interest as the vice-president of the National Secular Society. For those of us who believe that religion is the backward march of history and the enemy of rational discourse, the greater is the need to support the free speech of those who wish to expose the metaphysical nonsense in which the adherents of religion indulge.

Even before I became a cantankerous and cynical politician, I could not stand the actions of religious bigots and fanatics on the prowl, looking for converts and trying to proselytise even though that meant ending up with murderous crusades and aeroplanes being flown into occupied buildings. It is unbelievable that we meet here today at the invitation of a Home Secretary who asks us to respond with repressive legislation, which is calculated if not designed to protect those same people and their faiths from being subjected to hatred, ridicule and contempt. That may not be the Home Secretary's intention, but it will surely be a consequence of following that tortuous, contradictory and oxymoronic road.

I want to be nice to the Home Secretary because I read in the paper today that he has upset the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and we all want to do that. However, I cannot help seeing the Home Secretary as a big baby. Why cannot he grow tall like the great figures of history? Let us take Byron. When on his deathbed, he was asked to return to God and he replied, "Let's not be silly at this late stage." When Voltaire was asked the similar question, "Will you renounce the devil and all his works?", he replied "This is surely no time to be making powerful enemies." Why cannot the Home Secretary say no in a similar fashion to those mullahs and priests about the proposed changes in the law?

Let us consider the problem in another way and eschew satire and ridicule for enlightenment, reason and fact. What would happen under the Bill? Let us suppose that the Vicar of Christ, the Pope, died, and amid the orations, oratorios and requiem masses, someone went on television and said, "Come on, let's admit that the Pope was a bad man. He knowingly let the bodies in the killing fields of Africa multiply because of his insistence that condoms should not be used to protect against AIDS. He recently beatified Charles I, Emperor of Austria from 1914–18, saying that he was 'a model for us all', passing lightly over the fact that he presided over mass killings through the use of poison gas by his troops. Let us admit that he cared
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more for the souls of the cells of an embryo in a Petri dish than he did for the souls of the afflicted, the poor and the dispossessed among the living."

Hon. Members might not agree with that, but if I or anyone else were to say such a thing on the day on which the Pope died—remember, context is everything—they could be sure that the massed ranks of Opus Dei would rise up as one and demand that every piece of punitive legislation be used against the person who had said it. That is always assuming that they had not stoned him to death straight away. The people of Opus Dei would claim that that person had stirred up hatred against the Catholic people and against a whole class of religious people. They would argue in the courts—as happened in a case in Australia—that neither the person's intentions, nor the truth of what he said, was relevant. What would matter would be the effect of the words on such dear, sensitive souls as themselves.

Then along would come the Home Secretary with the reply that the Attorney-General would not allow the prosecution to go ahead. However, the Attorney-General is a political figure who may decide for emotive or political reasons that a trial would be no bad thing, and that it might cool the anger of Opus Dei. Certainly, an Attorney-General who could authorise Christian soldiers to fight and kill in an unlawful war in Iraq might do that. In short, we should live to regret this legislation.

I have spent a lot of my lifetime trying to be charged with blasphemy. However, even when we invited the police along and blasphemed, blasphemed and blasphemed again, no charges were ever brought. All that the police have ever done on these occasions is to protect us—the blasphemers, the law-breakers—from being attacked by crazy Christians foaming at the mouth who were seemingly, and I hope temporarily, possessed of devils. The Home Secretary wants to keep this law. It is pathetic. I support new clauses 3 and 4.

Dr. Evan Harris: I understand that we have very little time left in this debate. I want to speak to new clause 4, which has been tabled in my name and those of other distinguished hon. Members on both sides not only of the House but of the argument on the main question of incitement to religious hatred. I see the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) nodding at that. I note that the Conservatives have a free vote on this question, and I commend them for that. They will obviously note that their admirable defence of freedom of expression on new clause 3 might not be entirely consistent with voting against new clause 4, but that is a matter for each individual.

There are all sorts of reasons for seeking to repeal the blasphemy law, not least that it is practically obsolete and that it has not been used since 1972. It is also wrong in principle, and it has had very few friends since the Law Commission argued strongly back in 1985 that it should be repealed. Secular people, of whom I am one, do not feel that they should be constrained by the criminal law, because they believe that it is acceptable, on occasion, to say vicious things about other's religious beliefs. Indeed, sometimes, in today's world, it is necessary to do so.

As the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) so eloquently said, religious people also believe that such a law is unnecessary. It is patronising
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to their God, their almighty, to suggest that he needs an obsolete and dubious piece of criminal law to protect his position.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): If we were to get rid of the blasphemy law, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) would not be able to carry on trying to get arrested for it. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but there are those of us who, because of a deep faith, do not want protection for what we believe. That is why some of us, unlike the hon. Gentleman will probably vote with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, (Dr. Harris), which might surprise him.

Dr. Harris: I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) shares that view entirely. It has been clearly established that the blasphemy law is not compliant with the European convention on human rights. In so far as it is not obsolete, it is restrictive and lacks the certainty in criminal law that people need so that they know when they are going to offend. It is discriminatory, as was argued very clearly by the House of Lords Religious Offences Committee, which otherwise recommended very little that was specific following its deliberations.

The main point, however, is that the blasphemy law is confusing. The fact that we have such a law leads people to believe that their beliefs will be protected under the new law, and, for that reason, it has to go. What are the Government up to, in not taking this opportunity to send a message in support of their own measure by repealing it? In answer to a parliamentary question they said that they

even "extended".

I question whether that is really what is behind the Government's move. I intend to test the opinion of the House on this matter. The blasphemy law is obsolete, friendless, discriminatory, censoring, non-human-rights-compliant, and confusing. There is not much in its favour and it should be put out of its misery this evening.

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): In the few minutes available, I want to try to deal with the issues that hon. Members have raised. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was right to say that this is an important debate. We had a very good and lengthy debate in Committee on these issues, and many of the same points have been raised today by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a degree of consensus between us on what we are trying to achieve, but there are also significant differences, which we explored in Committee. It is clear from new clause 3, and from the fact that the Conservatives support it, that there is a desire that, where religion is used as a pretext or a cipher for racial hatred, such a situation should be covered. It is a matter of common agreement between us that there is mischief going on in this country, and that people are being
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attacked. Sometimes, those attacks are expressed in religious terms, but they are often connected to racial discrimination, and we all agree that that should not happen.

Many of the provisions in new clause 3 are, however, already covered by the existing law. If hon. Members look carefully at the law, they will see that the words used in insulting, threatening or abusive behaviour do not have to be racist words; they can also be religious words. Because Jews and Sikhs are protected as racial groups, they are protected from religious discrimination and hatred, as well as from racial hatred. The new clause would create a bigger gap, because people who were not part of a specific racial group would not have the protection of the law. We believe that there should be a level playing field for people in this country. Even under new clause 3, there would continue to be a gap. For example, Muslims, who do not form part of a specific racial group, would not have the protection of the law. They would not be protected from having hatred stirred up against them on the ground of their religion.

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