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Even at my hon. Friend's behest, I hesitate to expatiate at the Dispatch Box on secondary legislation at this late hour. However, the extremely important matters that he raised will be dealt with in the other place, where they will occupy the Government a great deal.
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As I was saying before my hon. Friend intervened to compare me with Demosthenes, I wish the Bill well. I very much hope that its key provisions will become law before the general election. However, we do not agree with some parts of it, and there are some provisions that the Government have fully to explore before they are passed into law. On that basis, I am content not to vote against the Bill on Third Reading.
Mrs. Fitzsimons : It is a great privilege to speak in favour of the Bill. Nearly 20,000 of my constituents belong to the Muslim faith, and there are many more from Christian denominations. I am therefore happy to back a law that, for the first time, provides parity for Christians and Muslims, so that they can join Jewish, Sikh and other faiths, and will not fall prey to the most pernicious form of hatred because of their belief. We should not underestimate the years of quiet, unnoticed suffering endured with noble fortitude by many thousands of the people whom we represent, because they did not have one of the most basic rights that most of us take for granted in this country and in this placethe right to practise their chosen faith quietly and individually with their family, friends and community.
In the 18th century, Rochdale was the town where the greatest number of religions were practised. Fewer religions are probably practised now in Rochdale, but it is of great importance to my constituents that we passed a law today that gives them parity to practise their chosen faith freely, without fear of hatred. They know, as does nearly every law-abiding citizen of any faith or no faith, that nearly every good book says, "Do as you would be done by". They do not expect favours or protection for inciting another person to hate somebody because of their faith or belief. All they want is for the hatred that has been directed against them to be made illegal once and for all.
I have heard many arguments in this place and in my constituency that worry me greatly. There are few perfect lawsthat is why there are so many rich lawyers. Parliamentarians have claimed that the new law will create unrealistic expectations, but which law has not done that? Each of us has had in our surgeries people who believed that a law stated something specific, and then realised that it was a matter of what one could prove, the evidence that a court needed, the difficulties presented by the Crown Prosecution Service, and many other factors. It is incumbent on us to realise that we need parity written into the law. What we are doing today is therefore very important.
Members of the Muslim community in my constituency are prey to people in their own community who prey on their fears. The vast majority of law-abiding Muslims want nothing to do with such people, but there is no law to make it clear to those people that what they are saying and doing in the name of the community is wrong, and that when the same thing is done to their own community, they think it is wrong, so they should not do it unto others.
The issue goes wider than that. In this country we have a strong tradition of freedom of speech, and it is wrong for politicians to go around saying that if passed, the law would curtail freedom of speech. That is dangerous and needs to be clarified in the Chamber.
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I challenge those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench to do that. I have had the opportunity to share a platform with several leading Liberal Democrats in my constituencyMembers of the European Parliamentwho try to portray the Bill as dangerous to the Muslim community, saying that it would be used to witch-hunt people with strong voices who want to stand out, oppose various parts of the law and practise their own freedom of speech. I hope Liberal Democrats will join me in nailing that lie.
The Bill is designed to protect individuals, not religions, institutions, deities or theologies. Over 50 years in my constituency, there has not been protection in law for my law-abiding citizens when they have been prey to the most pernicious hatred because of their religion. I hope the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), whom I know to be an honourable Gentleman, will distance himself from people seeking to sow seeds of fear and confusion. After 50 years of campaigning, we have reached the milestoneunder my Government, I am proud to sayof protecting in law 20,000 of my constituents, and many more of the Christian faith. I am afraid that there are not many Hindus in my constituency, but those I have will be protected. Some people come along and say, "This law is to get you." I hope that the hon. Gentleman will nail that lie.
This measure is about protecting everybody in law, which is why I am proud to stand here as a person who does not practise any faith, apart from my political beliefs, which are my faith. When I was a lot younger, I was taught a lesson. I railed against people who believed in Catholicism and what the Pope and the Vatican had done. A very wise person listened to me for a very long time as I hanged myself with a long piece of rope and said, "My, Lorna, that sounds pretty much like a belief to me." I learned the hard way that if I expect people to tolerate my beliefs, there needs to be a tolerance in the other direction.
There is a difference between enjoying something like "Life of Brian" and saying that a person has the right to incite somebody to hate another individual because of their belief. Therefore, I am very proud to support the Third Reading of a Bill that has been a long time coming.
Mr. Heath : On the whole, this is a good Bill. It contains an awful lot of things thatwe agree with the Governmentneeded doing. I found consideration in Committee, and even today's debate, despite the inadequacies of the timetable, usually a good experience of dialogue rather than simple confrontation. For that, I pay tribute to the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), both of whom are sitting on the Treasury Bench, and to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), as well as those who served on the Committee.
Having been involved with umpteen Home Office and Department for Constitutional Affairs Bills, I do not always feel that my arguments have been listened to, but
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in this instance there have been several changes to the Bill as a result of suggestions made from the Liberal Democrat Benches. We are grateful, because that indicates that we were having a constructive argument rather than a simple confrontation.
I have made it plain all along the line that we strongly support the Serious Organised Crime Agency. We want it to succeed and we think that there is a desperate need to confront organised crime effectively. We believe that such an agency is a step forward in providing the country with the mechanisms it needs to fight crime effectively, although we may quibble about some details, as we have today and no doubt will as the Bill proceeds in another place.
We have considered the issues of investigatory powers, financial reporting and witness protection. I am enormously grateful that the Under-Secretary recognised the deficiency in the provisions for witness protection for those who are connected but not in a familial relationship. I thank her for changing the Bill, apparently.
We have made significant progress on animal rights extremism and the measures to be put in place, although I do not think that the clauses we have agreed today are the last word on the subject. There is still a case for further revision, but we are, nevertheless, finally setting up the legislative framework necessary to combat a particularly unpleasant form of bullying that can have vile or tragic results.
I do not agree with the Government about Parliament square, although I am glad that they have removed the two absurd proposals in the Bill. We simply disagree with other aspects of the legislation, but these were two bits of nonsense: the original proposals for Parliament square and the unlimited power of arrest for the citizencitizen's arrest for any offence so that Mr. Jobsworth could arrest his next door neighbour and hold him until a police officer arrived, simply for having a defective brake light. That cannot be right, but the provision has been removed and I am pleased about that. I am particularly pleased that the Minister accepted my proposal for the power of seizure of vehicles without licence or insurance, which will be incorporated in the Bill.
The one difficult area is that to which the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) referredincitement to religious hatred. Let me be absolutely clearI said it at the beginning of my remarks and I shall say it againthat there is no difference between us and Labour Members in terms of the result that we wish for. We want a new offence that deals effectively with the pernicious acts of hatred that the hon. Lady described. Our argument concerns how that can be framed in the most effective way. We had that debate today, and it was entered into by Members on both sides of the Chamber. Indeed, many Labour Members joined us in the Lobby to say that there is at least one better wayprobably many better waysof framing the provisions so as to provide the effective protection against wicked and evil incitement to hatred that the hon. Lady and I want for the minority communities in
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our constituencies and around the country. We also want to ensure that the provisions work most effectively for all communities in achieving the parity to which the hon. Lady referred.
That is the argument that we take to the other place. I remain hopeful that we will resolve those issues and, as a result, secure a piece of legislation that we can wholeheartedly support throughout. We are not quite there yet, but I have not the slightest intention of voting against the Bill, which achieves much that is desirable.
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