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David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): For reasons that I stated at the time, I supported the clause to which my hon. Friend is referring. Does she agree that in practice it would not have meant that one could not criticise a religion or criticise religious practices? Like a number of Members, I have no faith, but I have recalled on a number of occasions the fact that we can affirm, because of Charles Bradlaugh, who was four times refused the right to take his seat because he had no religion. As what has been proposed would in no way ban criticism of religion—which I do not want to engage in, but which I would not challenge the right of others to express—it is difficult to understand why there should be such criticism of trying to protect people who do not have the protection that Jews and Sikhs have now.

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend puts the case eloquently. The clause in no way attacks the right of free speech. In no way does it attack the rights of comedians, academics, politicians or anyone else to criticise individual religions. We are trying to protect individuals against whom hatred is incited because of their religious faith. As I have said, we lifted the wording from that in the current law on incitement to racial hatred. That raises the question of how Members of this place, and those in the other place, can support the law on incitement to racial hatred yet not support clause 124. As with incitement to racial hatred, a high threshold is set. There is also the Attorney-General's involvement. That would have applied in this instance, too.
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It is with acute disappointment that we are having to ask the House to agree to remove the provision from the Bill. The unelected House has chosen not to rise to the challenge of what I believe is a fundamental aspect of creating a decent society. The parliamentary timetable means that it will not be possible to insist on the inclusion of the clause without jeopardising the creation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and other important provisions to tackle crime. I do not believe that that is in anyone's interest.

Peter Bottomley: The Minister is doing what other Ministers do when they are not desperately happy, and chooses to talk about the unelected other place. Will she remind the House of the proportion of the Members of the other place who have been appointed by the Prime Minister?

Caroline Flint: Discussion about the other place and how it should be constituted is not for this afternoon. I say again that Opposition parties in the House and the other place have contributed to the removal of the clause from the Bill. They will to answer for that. However, I reassure my hon. Friends that it remains the Government's firm and clear intention to give people of all faiths the same protection against incitement to hatred on the basis of their religion. We will make sure that that is part of our manifesto in the forthcoming general election.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: We come to one of the most hotly contested aspects of the Bill, but it is not a central aspect, which is why the Minister has moved that we agree with the amendment to remove the clause and schedule dealing with religious hatred. The debate has gone on in the other place and in Committee, and I shall not rehash the arguments that divide us across the House. I shall make just three or four points.

Let there be no doubt in the mind of the Minister or anyone else that there is agreement in all parts of the House that we need to prevent religious hatred. The issue that divides us is how best to achieve that. My party has consistently supported the anti-discrimination legislation to protect people from being discriminated against in respect of their religion. Our fear is that the Government have not thought through the effect of the measure that they are putting before the House. We made it clear on Second Reading that although we largely supported the Bill, this was one aspect that we could not support.

The measure would curb free speech. It is outside the fine British traditions of religious tolerance and fierce religious debate, which have characterised the history of our country. We believe that the existing law deals with incitement to violence and words designed to cause alarm, distress or harassment. We remain convinced that the Government are wrong in their contention, and right in the amendments withdrawing the provisions. The best way to deal with evil and intolerant ideas is to confront and defeat them in open debate, not as the Government originally envisaged in the Bill. We support the amendments to remove the misguided provisions from the Bill.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity at this late stage in the
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proceedings on the Bill to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and his colleagues in our home affairs team on having secured a victory for freedom of expression. I am disappointed to hear the Minister say that if returned to office on 5 May, the Labour party would introduce similar legislation in the next Parliament. That seems an extremely good reason to vote Conservative on 5 May, in addition to all the other reasons.

I did not have a chance to participate in earlier debates on this matter and I shall not rehearse the arguments, but let me say at the outset that it is important that all of us should recognise the sensitivities of others, and that we should not go out of our way to be gratuitously offensive to others. I frequently take offence at things that are said, but I have to bite my lip and move on. The price that one must pay in a free society is that people will occasionally take offence. I am no exception to that.

I have had quite a few letters from constituents. My mailbag on the issue has been atypical. I have had more letters on this subject than on other issues, from constituents who have been extremely concerned about the implications of the Government's proposal. They will undoubtedly welcome the fact that their lordships were prepared to take a stand and strike the right balance between protecting individual faiths and individual views, and the need to preserve freedom of expression.

The coalition of people against the measure was pretty wide. The Minister referred to some of them. Rowan Atkinson the comedian, who enjoys enormous support throughout the country, was famously in the forefront of the campaign against it. Academics, journalists, authors, human rights campaigners and many on the Labour Benches expressed concern about the implications of the proposal and the threat that it posed to freedom of expression. It is important to bear in mind that those fears were shared by more than just a narrow group of people.

Christian groups were certainly concerned. Talking to people, I have found a general view—this is anecdotal evidence and I would not claim that it is backed up by some weighty study—that one can insult Christians with complete impunity, but if one insults those of the Muslim faith in particular, the whole world comes down around one. Let me give the Minister an example—the case of the Sikh play, to which the Sikhs understandably took great exception. There was a fracas in Birmingham when the play was put on, and the play was taken off.

By contrast, 60,000 people—I was one of them—complained to the BBC about the Jerry Springer programme, and what happened? Absolutely nothing. They were effectively dismissed. I am writing to Michael Grade to say that if the BBC has taken the view that its commitment to taste and decency was not infringed by the Jerry Springer programme, what is the point of the BBC having a taste and decency requirement in its charter? People feel that there is one rule for one group and another rule for others.
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I am sorry that the Minister has accepted the verdict of the country and of the other place slightly less than graciously.

Caroline Flint: I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to discuss the issues raised by the play in Birmingham or the Jerry Springer programme, but I wish to correct the hon. Gentleman. The clause deals not with satire or with taking a view against a religion, but with incitement to hatred against someone on the basis of their religious belief. That would include those of the Christian faith. That is the point. Following the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument, does he believe we should repeal the legislation on incitement to racial hatred?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. It has been the Government's position that those who make genuine criticisms of different faiths have nothing to fear from the measure. Unfortunately, the assurances given by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) are assurances that he is in no position to deliver. Ministers are in no position to deliver them, either. Once we have enacted the provision, we are in the hands of the authorities.

The Minister says that there is a defence, in so far as the fiat of the Attorney-General is required. We know that the Attorney-General is a political appointee—I am not making a partisan point—and he is subject to the political climate of the day. There are genuine fears, which I share, that freedom of expression could be challenged. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield was right to point to the fact that there is already legislation that could cover the kind of incitement that none of us would support, and against which we all want action to be taken.

Many people have written to the newspapers and expressed the view that some of the statements from some of the mosques took an awfully long time for the authorities to get to grips with, whereas there was plenty of legislation that could have been invoked to deal with the matter.

1.30 pm

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