Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Ms Blears: I was not involved in this area when the original public order provisions were passed, but I am sure that many of these arguments would have been raised at that time. It would have been argued that it was the Attorney-General who had the discretion, that he would have to see whether the limbs of the offence were fulfilled, and that people would not know what the limits of acceptable behaviour were. Yet over the
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past eight years, since those offences were created, 84 cases have been referred, four prosecutions have been proceeded with and two have resulted in convictions.

It is fair to say that the vast majority of people in this country have a reasonable common-sense idea of what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. I think that it was Trevor Phillips who referred to the fact that Bernard Manning has not been subject to prosecution, despite some of the language and jokes that he has promulgated. Jim Davidson has never been subject to a prosecution. Clearly, robust satire, ridicule and humour are undertaken in these areas every day of the week, and yet we do not have the kind of doomsday scenario outlined by the hon. Gentleman.

I have no doubt that these are serious and complex matters, but I do not share the misgivings that have been articulated by the hon. Gentleman because I think that we will have a common-sense way of proceeding with these matters and that the provisions fill a current loophole in the law. No hon. Member has indicated how they would seek to have a level playing field and parity for the different religious groups in this country, many of whom do not currently have the protection of the law.

Mr. Heath: We have a few amendments down.

Ms Blears: I will be brief. I just want to reassure the Committee that the threshold for the new offence is high. We need the Attorney-General's consent, there are various elements, and we have a subjective and an objective test—we will discuss that when we come to the amendments on recklessness, which will be interesting.

The final issue that I wanted to raise is that when the courts decide cases, they have to decide them in a manner compatible with the European convention on human rights, and two convention articles are relevant in this case: articles 9 and 10. Article 9 deals with freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and article 10 deals with freedom of expression. The court—if it gets that far after the matter has been considered by the Attorney-General—will have to consider both sets of rights and, where necessary, balance one against the other. The courts have a great deal of experience in carrying out that delicate balancing act and considering the way in which those provisions interact, and they will continue to do in this area as they do in many others.

The provisions are necessary in order to provide justice and parity for the range of different religious groups in our society, and they have the support of many of the faith groups. I am sure that other hon. Members will refer to the people who do not support the proposals. I shall be more than happy to reply to all the amendments at the end of the debate.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which she presented the Government's case and for taking so many interventions. I shall set out as briefly as I can—because I am conscious of the passage of time—the reasons why I have such deep anxieties about the legislation. I then want to introduce new
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clause 17, which is a possible way that we could consider the matter in a slightly different light, albeit one that I shall not press to a vote.

There are also numerous, very interesting amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats. Although they would change the wording of the Bill, I am not entirely clear at the moment whether they would change the outcome. Doubtless, one of the Liberal Democrat Members will be able to explain them, and we can consider the matter in the round.

I say to the Minister at the outset that I do not think ill of the Government in their attempt to legislate in this area—I am aware that they have good intentions. However, I am afraid that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in this case I am not persuaded that we are not taking a seriously wrong turning. I am open to persuasion, and if there are possible ways in which the legislation can be altered to remove its key problems I am happy to consider the matter further, but at the moment I remain unconvinced. I have a feeling that it is not an easy piece of legislation to amend in order to remove the problems.

Let me return to what I said in my intervention on the Minister. Is it permissible to hate people? That is a good starting point for the debate because the Minister highlighted the fact that the race relations legislation had not led to prosecution of individuals for satire at the expense of the cultural values of others. Those were the illustrations she was citing when she referred to people such as Jim Davidson. That is not what the Race Relations Act 1976 was designed to do, and it is not what the Public Order Act 1986 was designed to do.

The Public Order Act was designed on the premise that as people's racial characteristics are irrelevant—if I can put it that way—to their humanity and, as the Minister pointed out, are not of their own making, if one advocates hating someone on the grounds of their colour or race, one will fall foul of the Act. Indeed, I think the Minister will agree that the circumstances in which individuals have been prosecuted under the existing provisions for race are precisely where they seek to incite hatred of others because of their race, not by ridiculing or criticising cultural values that they may have.

I return to the point that I made earlier about the BNP because it seems a wonderful illustration of the way democracy can work. Politicians express themselves quite frequently in terms concerning members of the BNP that show great hostility towards them because of their beliefs. Indeed, they go further than that and call on individuals to ostracise them. There are demonstrations calling for them to be ostracised. Those certainly do not fall foul of existing law. Public figures make speeches about those individuals emphasising the desirability that they be marginalised in our society, and that is considered to be part of normal political discourse.

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Indeed, it is quite successful. On the few occasions that constituents of mine who have extremist views have come to me, one of their complaints is that they consider themselves to be ostracised and it makes them angry. Sometimes their ostracism takes the form of their inability to book public meeting halls where they wish to hold meetings to peddle their views. All that is considered permissible.

However, in the Bill, the Minister wishes to say that beliefs that come under a religious heading cannot be criticised in the same way. That is the nub of what we are discussing. I suppose that what would happen if the legislation is passed is that the BNP would declare itself to be a religious movement to get the protection of the law that it does not currently enjoy.

We talked about mainstream religious faiths. I agree with the Minister. I am a Christian and a practising member of the Church of England. I can think of no basis on which I wish to revile or incite hatred towards those of other mainstream faiths, but as was rightly said by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, if devil worshippers set themselves up in my local community, made calls saying that they wished to carry out unpleasant practices, and wanted to get the law changed to sanction those practices, they would be likely to incite many people to make extremely intemperate comments. Is that to be prevented?

Where is the boundary between comment that is critical and comment that seeks to reduce the quality of life of people who are the object of that comment? We seek to reduce the quality of life of BNP members when we say that they should be ostracised. People may wish to say the same thing about people in religious groups. So, the nub of the issue is that while, of course, none of us wishes to see Muslims, or for that matter Christians, subjected to vitriolic abuse, once we start departing from the principle that, short of falling foul of the criminal law by sanctioning violence against people, we should be allowed to criticise in strong terms, including expressing hatred for other people's beliefs, we are on a slippery slope that is difficult to stop. To my mind, it is difficult to provide a rational philosophical justification for why we can criticise the BNP in certain terms but cannot say the same about devil-worshippers, Muslims or Christians.

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. A moment ago, he said ''expressing hatred for other people''. However, under the terms of the Bill, it is not necessary to go as far as that. Any words or actions that may be insulting are outlawed. As the Minister said, the point is the effect of the words on other people. The words may be only insulting but if they have the effect on any other person of stirring up hatred, that would bring the person concerned within the ambit of the Bill, even though what they had said was only mildly insulting.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is one of the serious drafting weaknesses in the legislation. The reason for having it in those terms is, as the Minister explained, that the measure would be
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subject to the Attorney-General's discretion. I am quite prepared to accept that in reality only cases of hatred will ever come to court.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): My point is not about devil worshippers, but about hate. The hon. Gentleman will recall Aneurin Bevan's comment that members of the Conservative party were lower than vermin. Will he comment on the words of one of my constituents to one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues, who unwisely canvassed my constituent during the last election and received the retort that he would not be voting for him, even if he could, because he hated him. He called him, ''you Tory,'' then used a word that I shall not repeat here? He went further and said, ''I recall your father, and he was also a Tory . . . ,'' and again used a word not to be mentioned here. This definition of hatred is interesting, because my constituent clearly felt rather strongly about the hon. Gentleman's party.

Will the hon. Gentleman also say whether we are actually talking about incitement rather than hatred?

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