Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Grieve: It is clearly incitement, because that is what the Bill is all about. If someone calls someone else vermin in the presence of other people as opposed to in a one-to-one dialogue, the possibility of inciting other people to regard the other person as vermin must be present.

The hon. Gentleman's example delightfully highlights one of the arguments against this legislation, because when Mr. Bevan suggested that the Conservatives were lower than vermin, they set up the Vermin club. I have a Vermin club badge in my home, which was worn on a lapel around the streets. It shows a bug in a top hat looking toff-like with a cane under his arm. The badges were much worn in London in the months after the speech.

On the whole, I believe that the individual who made the remark rather regretted it, because it backfired politically. It is one of the great protections in a democratic society that if people express themselves outrageously or intemperately and in a way that does not strike a chord with public opinion, there tends to be retribution against them at the polls and certainly in the media for what they have said. This was going to be my concluding remark, but that illustrates the fact that society is not without protection in this matter, because public opinion of and public opprobrium towards those who use intemperate language are probably just as good a regulator of the way in which people behave as legislation is.

Vera Baird: Before the hon. Gentleman finishes, I must ask him about his analogy between the BNP, political ideas and religion. Does he agree that there is an important distinction in that ideas are much more flexible? One usually thinks up one's political ideas for oneself, changes ones mind and adopts a different view. Very rarely are views inherited. Someone joked that there were some political dynasties, and I know that the hon. Gentleman's father was an MP. They are certainly not inherited as ideas en masse as part of a group's cultural heritage, but religion is inherited. If one insults an eight-year-old Muslim girl on the basis
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of her Islamic faith, one insults her on something that is as inherently part of her being, as her race is, particularly at that age because she has not had the time to explore the possibilities of changing her faith in any way. It is for such mischief that the Government are seeking a cure.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. and learned Lady makes a perfectly good point. I do not want to widen the scope of the discussion, as we are straying on to very dangerous territory, but quite apart from any inherited political characteristics, there is evidence that we also inherit all sorts of emotional characteristics, although all that is tempered by free will and the ability to change their views that human beings clearly have. I accept what the hon. and learned Lady said, which was that in reality religious practice, if not belief, and adherence to religious precepts is conditioned for many, particularly the young—they do not have much option in the matter.

I take my children to church. That is not a matter on which there has been a huge amount of consultation, and doubtless there may come a moment when they tell me either that they will no longer go or that they will continue to go. That will be the point at which they start to make their own free choices, but I accept the hon. and learned Lady's point.

I accept that the issue is difficult and there are no simple answers. That leads me on—I want to move speedily—to the question of the Attorney-General's discretion. I accept that there are other laws that are uncertain in scope. We give the Attorney-General all sorts of discretions on other matters and even encourage him to have them. However, I am worried that we are creating expectations with the Bill that will prove to be not only unfulfilable, but undesirable to fulfil.

One recent example is the theatrical production in Birmingham concerning the Sikh gurdwara, which, on the face of it, was undoubtedly insulting. For a person of firm religious conviction, it is insulting for a play to suggest that rape takes place in a holy place that is associated with that person's faith and which furthermore suggests—I infer this, although I did not see the production—that there are cultural norms in the group frequenting that place that might encourage such a thing to happen. That would be really insulting for a Sikh. However, there was never any possibility of that production being the subject of a prosecution, even though the law clearly could have operated so as to bring such a prosecution, because of the Sikhs' particular and somewhat unusual classification as a racial group.

To make a pragmatic comment, I foresee similar things happening concerning other faiths that could excite enormous passion and which could lead to similar calls for prosecution. Indeed, talking to some people from faith groups who support the Bill, I am alarmed to discover that many of them see such situations as precisely the sort of circumstances in which they would expect a prosecution to be brought. That worries me very much, because I think that we are deceiving them and I have said so. I do not believe that a prosecution will be brought in such circumstances
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and that makes me even more worried about the nature of the legislation that we are putting on the statute book.

I turn briefly to our new clause 17, which was an attempt to see whether there is a halfway house between the Government's position and my anxieties. New clause 17 attempts—I am always hesitant about whether or not I have succeeded—to identify whether it is possible to provide added protection to racial groups if, in reality, the threats being uttered against religion are clearly targeted against them, given the context in which they are made. New clause 17 is limited in its scope.

I note the amendments that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has tabled. If they were accepted, they would reverse exactly the limited intention that I was trying to achieve in the first place—not that that would be necessarily wrong, but our intention is to target threats specifically.

4.15 pm

Threats are a key issue. It is one thing to insult or abuse somebody, and of course insults and abuse can threaten people. However, as the legislation operates it is not necessary to threaten somebody, only to insult or abuse them. Threats can be of a general kind—if I said, ''If we ever came into government we would deport all this religious group or deprive them of citizenship,'' or, ''We would prevent them from getting employment,'' that would be a threat, but such statements are different in nature and quality from being merely abusive. I put in the distinction because I thought that it might aid the debate. Let us not pretend that what I propose is a perfect solution; it is there simply to concentrate our minds.

I want to give others an opportunity to speak. I may seek to catch your eye later, Dame Marion, in respect of the Liberal Democrat amendments.

Dr. Harris: This might be a convenient point to mention what I was trying to do in the amendments to the new clause. I was suggesting not that the new clause was necessarily wrong but that the hon. Gentleman should defend why he talks about threat, abuse or insults in the first line of subsection (2) of the new clause, then ditches them. Secondly, there is a hanging ''he'' which is not sufficiently defined; that is what my amendment (a) sought to rectify. I wanted to ensure that the Government could not dismiss the hon. Gentleman's arguments on the basis of the drafting of the new clause. I was not suggesting that there was anything innately wrong in the approach that he and Liberty, which provided some of the wording, were taking.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Liberty provided some of the wording. It has been extremely helpful throughout our debates on the Bill. ''He'' means ''she'' in drafting legislation, as the hon. Gentleman will know. I did not put in a person because I had not thought of corporate bodies being liable under this type of public order offence, but it is a
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matter on which the Minister may wish to comment. As for the other points, I think that I have explained myself. I deliberately put in ''threat, abuse or insult'', but added the requirement that such statements threaten. There is a difference between threatening somebody and simply abusing or insulting them: a person may be angry about the one, but put into a state of fear about the other. I thought that distinction might have some merit.

As I said, none of my proposal is perfect, but I remain very doubtful and anxious about the provision. While I will listen carefully to the debate and reflect on it as we move on to Report, it will take a lot of persuasion for me to find a way in which I can support the measure.

Mr. Heath: It is such a long time since I started my remarks on the clause—[Laughter.] I shall be brief because my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has a large of number of amendments that he wishes to introduce. I shall simply give an overview of the Liberal Democrats' position on what is generally agreed to be the most difficult part of the Bill.

I start by saying that none of us on the three Front Benches differ over the intent—we understand what the Minister is trying to do. She is trying to cure a mischief in the present legal framework that, in effect, allows incitement to racial hatred to be carried out under the proxy of religion. It enables people to make comments that are essentially incitements against a particular race under the pretext that they are directed against a religion, which is identified with that race. As a result there is a difficulty in prosecution. We are sensible to recognise that the number of offences that are aggravated by race and religion since we passed the—I cannot remember the name of the Act—

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