Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Clappison: The Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

Dr. Harris: The Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to my colleagues. The number of such offences is increasing and we seem to be living in an increasingly intolerant age. I deplore that and like everyone else I am anxious to remove the potential for that. On that much, we agree with the Government.

The question that we are debating is not whether it is right to stop people abusing other people in such a way as to incite racial hatred through the proxy of religion, but whether the proposed measure is the right way to do it and whether it will accomplish what the Minister wants it to accomplish. More important—this is the crux of the debate—is whether the formulation that she has chosen will result in effects that are foreseeable but not intended in terms of its practical implementation.

We can go further in terms of consensus in saying that although we may wish to stop this particular brand of incitement to hatred, we do not wish to stop people from either believing in or pronouncing upon their religious beliefs. We do not wish to stop people proselytising their religion in appropriate ways. We do not wish to stop people exercising the right of free
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speech in drawing attention to, criticising, or perhaps ridiculing the activities of religious groups. We do not want to stop people telling jokes with a religious content. We do not wish to stop people writing plays or books, or engaging in learned discourse in forms which might, in a perverse way, cause some other people to form an adverse opinion of a religious group. That is the consensus. I do not think that anyone here believes anything else.

The question is, does the Minister's proposal address that? I understand two things which are at the base of her argument. First, she says that the offence is aimed against inciting hatred against a group of people, not a religion. I understand that. I was brought up as a good west-country liberal non-conformist and we were taught always to hate the sin, but love the sinner. That is the message that the Minister is trying to get across: it is perfectly proper to be critical of religious practices but it must not be extended to inciting hatred of the people who follow those practices and who hold that set of beliefs. The second key element of the Minister's argument is the requirement for the Attorney-General to sanction any prosecution. Assuming that we have an Attorney-General who behaves properly, as the House would wish, there is a clear lock on any future prosecutions.

That argument falls down on several points. First, there are huge problems of definition, which is a difficulty in itself. We have not managed to get to the bottom of the problems of definition in the debate so far. Secondly, there is a huge gulf in understanding of what the legislation means. I agree with what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said: there are people out there who, whatever the Minister says, believe that this is a blasphemy law. I heard a Member of the House of Commons discussing the circumstances surrounding the play in Birmingham about the Sikh temple, saying that once the Bill went through the problem would be solved. It will not. I have heard others suggest that the Bill provides perfectly proper legislative provisions for dealing with books that are satirical or are considered to make adverse references to religious beliefs. It does not. Salman Rushdie will not be prosecuted under the proposed law as I understand it and as I hope that it is formulated.

Mr. Grieve: Salman Rushdie will not be prosecuted under the law because, presumably, the Attorney-General will not permit it. However, would he fall within the scope of the law so that he might be prosecutable? The answer must be that he would, by view of the response of those of the Muslim faith who were outraged by him.

Mr. Heath: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is right about that, but it is because I am not sure that I have such deep anxieties about the legislation. I am not sure that he is right because the test is not whether somebody feels that they are more likely to be hated, but whether somebody else is more likely to hate them, which is not quite the same thing. It is not the object of the hate who supplies the test of the efficacy of the legislation.

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My biggest anxiety is that expectations have been raised perversely as to what the legislation is about. Those expectations have been amplified by the comments of people who should know better—including the former Home Secretary in the written statement that he issued on the day of Second Reading. He made things more, not less, difficult with his second example of where action might be considered, which was

    ''In response to extremists within a faith community making repeated threatening statements stirring up followers to look for ways to make trouble for unbelievers saying that God would never ever allow unbelievers to be pleased with them and created them to be enemies.''—[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 82WS.]

If that is a tenet of people's faith, we are approaching the point where somebody who professes the faith of Islam will be the first object of a complaint and an investigation, because they have professed their faith. That worries me deeply, because I can envisage the measure being used in a perverse way.

I can envisage the legislation, if it is passed as framed, being used by every person who wishes to put complaints to the police and start investigations. Yes, the cases will be dismissed by the Attorney-General in due course as not appropriate for prosecution, but such complaints could be made against everybody who such people feel has in any way disparaged their faith or written, spoken or made jokes about their practices. That will not be right, it will not be what the Minister intends, and it will not be the intention of the law, but that is what will happen. The first effect of such an outcome will be to make life extremely difficult for a lot of people. Secondly, it will disappoint a lot of people. Thirdly, it may have the perverse effect of leading to self-censorship by people who will seek to avoid causing any potential offence or any potential for anybody to bring a complaint against them. I do not believe that we should intend such an outcome. I hope that through sensible discourse in Committee, on Report and later we can reach a different form of words that will achieve the Minister's objectives. In its present form, I suspect that the provision will do a great deal of harm to the relations between different groups in this country rather than improve them.

My last point is that other things need to be done to improve the lot of faith groups in this country. In some areas, measures against harassment and discrimination in day-to-day life will have massively more effect than the legislation—which will rarely be used by the Attorney-General to bring prosecutions—ever could. I hope that we will move back to that agenda if we are serious about dealing with discrimination, harassment and incitement to hatred of religious groups, rather than having well-meaning but misdirected legislation.

Mr. Clappison: I rise to speak to amendment No. 226 and the consequential amendments that appear in my name alone. They are designed to remove some of the problems that have been identified with the proposal. Before that, however, I shall comment on the generality of the Bill.

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I listened carefully to the Minister's arguments, particularly her comment that we will be leaving a gap in the law if we do not include a religious offence as a complement to the racial offence. I cannot take the Minister's remarks as seriously as I would have done had I not served on the Committee that considered the Crime and Disorder Bill of 1998. The Minister will know that the definition of a religious group for our purposes comes from the 1998 Act as amended by the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. She is no doubt aware that the 1998 Act created the concept of a racially aggravated offence—that is, if racial hostility accompanies the offence, it will be considered an aggravated offence and will receive a more serious sentence. I had some doubts about whether that was merely putting into legislation what already happened in practice, but I went along with the concept, since the Government were proposing the measure as an alternative to relying on what happened in practice. However, when that legislation was being debated, I remember spending long hours—much longer than I shall spend speaking in this brief debate—arguing with Ministers that in addition to racially aggravated offences, we should include religiously aggravated offences, for precisely the same reasons that the Minister has advanced today. We spent many hours arguing that if an offence was aggravated by dint of racial hostility, it could also be aggravated by dint of religious hostility.

The Government resisted those proposals—they came from Liberal Democrats as well as Conservative Members—all the way down the line. They seemed not to have a problem in drawing a distinction between racial and religious offences, and that gap in the law persisted for three years. By putting racial offences into an aggravated category unaccompanied by religious offences, the Government may have made the position of religious groups worse than it had been before the passage of the 1998 Act. In the end, to give the Government credit, they saw sense and included aggravated religious offences alongside the others, but there was no problem when that legislation was being passed of the sort that the Minister has described today, and that situation persisted for two years.

What was proposed then was different from the offences that we are discussing today, because the concept of a racially or religiously aggravated offence applies where another offence has already been committed and where the racial or religious hostility aggravates the original offence. In most case, one imagines that the offence will be one of assault or something of a similar nature, but it could be any type of offence that has a religious or racial motive. However, another, separate offence has to be committed before the question of racial or religious aggravation comes into play. That is quite different to the provisions of clause 119, where we are talking about the creation of an offence in itself.

I come now to the amendment, which centres on my concern about how wide the Government are casting the net. We have the Minister's assurance that prosecutions will be subject to the decision of the
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Attorney-General, but I cannot take that assurance as seriously as I would like given the width of the net that Government seek to cast, particularly on the question of intent.

We would do well to remember that the proposed offence is a serious offence, carrying up to seven years' imprisonment. It is important that the Committee considers the distinction between section 18(1)(a) and (b) of the Public Order Act 1986 as amended by the Bill, because there are to be two ways in which the new offence can be committed. New paragraph (a) deals with intent; the person concerned, the offender, must have the intent to ''stir up . . . religious hatred''. That is clear. Thus, religious hatred is slipped into the existing legislation. New paragraph (b) is an alternative, but it is every bit as serious as new paragraph (a) and the offence carries the same penalty. It creates an offence that can be committed in the absence of the intention to stir up hatred. New paragraph creates an offence where a person uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays material of that nature, and

    ''having regard to all the circumstances the words, behaviour or material are . . . likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are . . . likely to stir up racial or religious hatred''.

That is the effects test to which the Minister referred. However, the individual committing the offence does not have to have any intent of the type envisaged in paragraph (a), so the offence can be committed without the intent to stir up religious hatred.

In passing, I notice that whereas new paragraph (a) involves merely slipping the word ''religious'' into the words of section 18(1)(a) of the Public Order Act, new paragraph (b) rewrites section 18(1)(b) of the Act. Why have the Government decided to make such a change in the wording paragraph (b), but not paragraph (a)? What is the significance of that change? Now, an offence will be created where,

    ''having regard to all the circumstances the words, behaviour or material are . . . likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are (or it is) likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.''

I repeat, ''any person''. We would like an explanation of why that change has been made to the original wording. Is this another example of the net being cast wider?

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