Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman must recognise that we already have provisions under the Public Order Act on stirring up racial hatred; clearly, the same provisions apply there. The court must apply an objective test to determine whether what has been said is abusive, threatening or insulting and likely to stir up hatred on the grounds of race. The court already needs to make that decision. In the Bill, we are seeking simply to replicate those provisions in relation to people who are defined in terms of religion, rather than race.

The hon. Gentleman may well take exception to court having to face the difficulty of looking at the separate limbs of an offence, but the position is exactly the same with the current public order provisions. In the past three years, 84 cases have been referred to the Attorney-General; we have had four prosecutions and two convictions, so we are certainly not in the situation of having hundreds of cases referred. Exactly the same limbs are relevant under the Public Order Act as will be relevant under the Bill.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Minister is being generous in giving way, but is not there a world of difference between criticism of religion and criticism of race? It is difficult to conceive of a legitimate criticism of race, but it is possible to have legitimate criticisms of religion. In answer to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, will the Minister say whether it is possible for the offence to be committed purely through criticism of the religion itself.

Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman talks about criticism, but we need to be clear that we are talking about stirring up hatred. Hatred is a pretty extreme emotion. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the definition is ''intense dislike'' and ''ill-will'', so we are not talking about criticism. That is an important point.

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To reiterate what I said to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, the offence might cover reasons to hate Islam if, in the circumstances, it was likely to stir up hatred; that is the aim we are looking at. However, the court and the Attorney-General would need to look at all the limbs of the offence, as they do now in relation to racial hatred provisions.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister provided a definition of hatred; in the context of race, there can be no objective reason for hating someone on the basis of their race. However, the Minister's problem is this. Although we try to express ourselves moderately, there are occasions on which we try to foster ill-will towards other people. For example, attitudes in mainstream political parties towards extreme parties such as the British National party undoubtedly seek to generate ill-will against members of those parties; indeed, demonstrations against them often call on them to be ostracised. That is considered—subject, of course, to people not going out and hitting members of those parties over the head with a baseball bat—to be acceptable in a democratic society. I find it difficult, on a philosophical basis, to distinguish between that and trying to foment ill-will against a religious group with whose beliefs one profoundly disagrees.

Ms Blears: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I shall not seek to caricature his view, but some elements in a religion may be similar to the campaigning and proselytising elements in a political belief; there is a blurring of that line. However, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, because it is appropriate to distinguish between religion and politics for two reasons.

First, for some groups, their religion is not simply a matter of choice. I have heard it said that religion is a matter of choice—as is politics, unless one is born into a particular tribe or political family—but that race clearly is not. There is an anomalous situation in that respect. Members of the Jewish and Sikh communities have protection on the grounds of their religion as well as of their race; the remarks that are made about them do not have to relate to their race, but just have to stir up hatred. The fact that those concerned are part of a mono-ethnic group means that they have protection. Those who do not fall into those categories, but who are members of a religious group do not have that protection.

3.45 pm

Mr. Grieve: I disagree with the Minister about the characterisation of the Jewish community as a racial group. There might be a slightly stronger argument in relation to the Sikhs, but I cannot alter House of Lords decisions. We could equally argue that we should be using primary legislation to take the Sikhs out of being a racial category. They are, I agree with the Minister, quite a surprising exception, but exceptions just happen. If they are created by the courts, we should accept them.
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Ms Blears: I am sure that we could have another debate about the appropriate interaction between the Executive and the legislature in such circumstances.

Dr. Harris: I understand where the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is coming from. However, my point is different. I am grateful that the Minister answered the question, and acknowledge that, in some contexts, saying things that might make somebody hate a religion or belief might be the equivalent of stirring up racial hatred against those who hold that belief. I understand the circumstances in which she might think that that applies.

However, what about people who think that a certain belief is evil? Some religions think that other religions are evil. Sometimes, it is a defining feature of a religion that its followers feel strongly about other people's religions, even if they try to get on as individuals. However, one can expect to hate nothing more than something that is evil. Therefore, if one believes that a religion is evil, does it not fall into the category whereby it stands a real risk of being prosecuted for inciting hatred against its followers? We are taught to hate evil. That is where the difficulty is in the way in which the legislation is framed.

Ms Blears: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is seeking to elide two of the limbs of the offence. That is to say that words that are abusive, threatening or insulting against a religion would automatically constitute the offence. I have tried to make it clear that there might be words that are threatening about somebody's religious belief, but the second limb must also be present: the likely effect has to be to stir up hatred against individuals, not against the religion. Therefore, one can have the most deeply held views about a religion, but if one expresses them either with the intention or with the likely effect that to do so will stir up hatred against people who are defined by virtue of that religion, that is wrong. It should not take place in the kind of society in which we want to live, and in which we want to promote good and tolerant relations between different communities. If the hon. Gentleman and I simply disagree, we will find the issue hard to resolve, but I should not like him to elide the two limbs of the offence. That would be wrong.

Dr. Harris: Let me have one more stab at this, because I know that the Minister wants to make progress and she has been very generous. The point that I was making was that the expression of what might be considered to be a legitimate criticism of belief might be so strong—that is what religion is: strongly held views—that it could have no consequence other than to stir up hatred; we are taught to hate things that are evil.

Let us take a cult, say Satanists, who might define themselves as loving evil. I am not an expert in the area, but Satanism is an evil cult, so is it not a reasonable thing for people to hate it, and therefore to hate its followers, without necessarily falling foul of this measure? It is reasonable for people to hate the followers of the BNP, but they should not take violent action against them—even though they have a set of beliefs that I think are hateful. However, there is a
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distinction between that and incitement to racial hatred, as long as the initial criticism is of belief and not of people themselves.

Ms Blears: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's tenacity in seeking to put forward his point of view. I do not accept it. I do not think that it is impossible to express intense feelings without necessarily crossing that borderline into stirring up hatred against groups of individuals. He also failed to address the point that at the moment certain people have protection under our law and other groups do not. That is an important element of the legislation. That is why we tried to frame the provisions so that they were narrow and targeted at the mischief that we have identified. I know that some of his later amendments seek to widen the operation of the conditions. I am keen that in promoting this offence we try to circumscribe it so that it does not simply act as a catch-all provision, because I know that there are concerns about that.

Mr. Clappison: The Minister is, no doubt, an extremely good and benevolent person and she can see the distinction between a religion and those who adhere to it, but the test is the effect that will be had on any person. She is making her case worse by the distinction that she is drawing between the two limbs of the offence. To people who are less well disposed than she is, saying that one hates a particular religion may well have the effect of making them hate those who adhere to it. It is a distinction that the courts will find extremely hard to make—if there is a distinction.

Ms Blears: I have made the point that the courts and the Attorney-General will need to consider the offence as a whole, and to see whether all the separate components are fulfilled and it is appropriate to proceed to court.

Mr. Grieve: I am sorry to press the Minister on this point, but she is asking Parliament to pass a piece of legislation that will place in the hands of the Attorney-General the discretion, not to decide whether the law has been breached, but to decide whether a prosecution should be brought in a particular case. The truth is that the outcome will be that prosecutions will be limited to a minimum. Is it not in fact bad law? It leaves the average citizen totally unclear about what is and is not acceptable. It is unable to establish the boundaries of behaviour and it creates a climate of uncertainty. The law will be brought into disrepute. The pressures will build and be expressed publicly, with calls for prosecutions and for cases to be tested before juries when the Attorney-General will never grant permission for that to happen.

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