Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Heath: I want briefly to introduce this debate because my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon wishes to address the numerous amendments.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): On a point of order, Dame Marion, This being a clause stand part debate, I thought that the Minister should introduce the Government's intention, so that we could then respond in the usual way with a debate.
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Maybe it is too late to do so, but it would be a better way of going about things, with all due respect to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

The Chairman: I should explain to the Committee that I would have called the Minister if she rose in her seat, and I did not see her doing that.

Mr. Heath: I also expected the Minister to rise to introduce the clause stand part debate, and, on the expectation that she will now do so, I am happy to resume my seat in order to speak later.

3.30 pm

Ms Blears: My apologies, Dame Marion, if I did not manage to catch your eye; perhaps it had something to do with the transition between my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and myself.

It would helpful to speak briefly in the clause stand part debate and to set the scene, after which I will of course respond to the amendments in detail. We are dealing with a complex area. The words used in the amendments to the existing law that are set out in clause 119 and schedule 10 are fairly straightforward, but the arguments behind them are quite complex and controversial, and there are deeply held views on all sides of the debate. It is therefore important that hon. Members are able to express the breadth of the views that exist on such issues.

In that regard, I should point out that we have not come to the clause afresh. The matter has been considered at length and in various settings over the past few years. The House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences issued a report in April 2003, following which a widespread consultation with faith groups was conducted to consider the implications of introducing the offence of religious hatred. The various faith groups then issued a joint statement in April 2004, which was broadly supportive of the Government's proposals, and did so again on Tuesday, in advance of this debate.

Dr. Harris: I do not want to interrupt the Minister's flow, but it is only fair to say that not all faiths share the view of the statements that were issued by the group that she defines as ''faith groups''. One can always collect a group of supporters and say, ''That's the opinion of faith groups''. It might also be worth asking how much consultation on freedom of speech issues there was with people from a non-faith perspective.

Ms Blears: I was not for a moment trying to suggest that there is universal agreement on the provisions, which is clearly not the case. There are a range of views, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon suggested. Humanist groups, atheists, agnostics and others with no religious beliefs have also raised issues, and their views in the consultation are of course valid. My understanding was that the consultation was wider than simply faith groups and considered a range of issues. We are trying to achieve the careful balance between freedom of expression and
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people's right to protection from the kind of thing that goes on when hatred is stirred up against people in our communities. That balance is difficult to achieve and we do not pretend for a moment that there is one view on the matter.

Clause 119 amends the offences in part III of the Public Order Act 1986 relating to the stirring up of racial hatred, so that they apply in addition to the stirring up of hatred against groups defined by their religion. That will put an end to the unacceptable loophole in the law whereby groups with a common ethnic background, such as Jews and Sikhs, are protected by law from hatred being stirred up against them, whereas groups that are ethnically diverse, such as Christians, Muslims or Hindus, are not.

Just as with the incitement to racial hatred, the new offence tackles a form of serious social harm. Stirring up hatred potentially causes great social unrest. It can and often does cause people to suffer abuse or to be afraid even to practice or profess their beliefs. The current law does not adequately deal with that problem. Those who stir up hatred may do so without inciting people directly to commit crimes.

A number of relevant provisions are already operative, but the crime of incitement on such grounds requires something specific, which would not be covered by the existing law. There are some lesser offences under the Public Order Act, which provide redress where there is direct harassment or threats from one individual to another on the spot. I think that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said in a previous debate in the Committee that if somebody was standing on a street corner deliberately threatening people on the grounds of their religion, the hon. Gentleman would be happy to support the police in intervening to prevent a breach of the peace. Those circumstances may well fall under the public order provisions.

There are other circumstances, however, that are not covered by those provisions, which certainly do not cover targeting whole sectors of society and stirring up hatred against them. Those who stir up hatred are increasingly beginning to use religious identity as a substitute marker for racial hatred and to get round the law in that way. A range of amendments that we will come to later would link the racial hatred provisions with the religious provisions; no doubt when we come to explore those amendments, we will see the intricacies and sophistication of the matter.

I want to make it very clear that this is not a new blasphemy law. I know that some of the arguments have connected blasphemy with the measures. Inevitably, some of the same arguments are covered, but this is not a new blasphemy law. The new offence covers stirring up hatred against groups that are targeted for their beliefs, not hatred against those beliefs. I know that sometimes that is a difficult distinction, but I want to be absolutely clear. The provisions will protect people, not ideologies. I think it was Trevor Phillips who said at a recent meeting that ''God does not need the Lord Chancellor or the Home
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Secretary to be his bodyguard.'' That was a good phrase. The clause is about protecting people, not ideologies. It is even-handed.

Dr. Harris: Does the Minister agree that if the provision is not about beliefs, it will not catch people who distribute material that sets out a range of insulting and inflammatory reasons to hate Islam, but will capture those who would do the same when it came to hating people of the Islamic faith? Is that a distinction that she would make?

Ms Blears: Throughout this debate, we will have a series of examples posed and will be asked whether they would be caught by the proposals. The proposed offence is complex, with a number of different limbs; its intention, whether the words used are threatening, insulting or abusive and whether they are likely to stir up racial hatred in the people who would be exposed to them. The courts would have to decide, looking at all the different limbs of the offence, whether the different components were satisfied in order for there to be a conviction.

The courts would have to consider whether, in the circumstances presented to them, all the different limbs were identified. One of the examples that has been given to me is whether we should use the words Islamic terrorist. If those words were used in an academic debate or in a discussion about whether that was an appropriate phrase, hatred clearly was not likely to be stirred up in that context. If the phrase, ''All Muslims are terrorists'' was used in a pub by a group of drunken people, it may well be that those words would have the likely effect of stirring up hatred on the basis of that religion. I am not trying to avoid the issue, but it is difficult for me to say what a court would decide in those circumstances. It would be for the court to decide.

Dr. Harris: The Minister says that she is not seeking to evade the issue, but she raised it. She said that the proposals will not affect hatred directed against belief, but are to protect believers. She will hear later that the Liberal Democrats understand her concerns. However, I asked her a specific question; from what she was saying, I thought that the difference between the two was so clear that people could be reassured. I asked her whether she felt that the measure would deal with people distributing material, setting out a range of insulting and highly inflammatory reasons for hating Islam, but not directed against people of that faith. I would urge her to clarify whether that is the case, as otherwise the point is that the matter can be clarified only in a court of law. A series of prosecutions will then be required to sort it out, and I do not believe that that is what she is after.

Ms Blears: No, I am certainly not after a series of prosecutions. I have discussed the matter with the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome, and we certainly do not want to be in a position where the police are required to expend undue resources in looking at such issues. Clearly, any prosecutions will go forward only with the consent of the Attorney-General, who will have to look carefully
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at whether it is appropriate for those matters to proceed. People would not be convicted if material were to be distributed in a way that was abusive and insulting, but was not likely to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religious belief. If, in those circumstances, hatred was likely to be stirred up, there clearly would be the realistic prospect of a conviction.

Mr. Grieve: Does that not highlight and encapsulate the absolute nub of the problem with the legislation? Words are perfectly acceptable when used in one context, but become unacceptable when transferred to another context. Once one has that qualification, there is no certainty for the individual as to the forum in which his words may or may not be acceptable. Furthermore, the Attorney-General will be constantly under pressure to bring prosecutions, which he will refuse to do. Thus, the law will be brought into disrepute, because many groups are clearly pinning hopes on the Bill, which, given the statement that the Minister has just made and others that we have heard, will never be fulfilled.

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