Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Vera Baird: I am following carefully what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the term ''religion'' is used in our law already. We have already talked about religiously aggravated offences, so we are fairly comfortable that the courts will be able to decide what aggravation on the basis of religion is and that they can sort out what a religion is. The term ''religion'' or ''belief'' goes back to the ECHR, an article of which specifically declares religious freedom, although it also expresses limitations on it. There is quite a long history and reasonable precedents, including in our own law, on which we can rely to decide what religion is.

Dr. Harris: I agree that the problem is already in our law, but having religiously aggravated offences does not necessarily mean that we are comfortable about the issue and that the courts have had the opportunity to deal with it or have dealt with it easily. I am certainly not comfortable that the courts would make the right decision even in those cases. An amendment on the amendment paper, which is starred because it referred to the wrong Act when originally submitted, suggests that if the Attorney-General's fiat is a good thing to avoid unintended prosecutions, there should be an Attorney-General opinion in respect of the relatively minor religiously aggravated offences under the Public Order Act—sections 4A, 5 and so on. I am not talking about religiously aggravated assault and criminal damage, because of the difficulties that the courts might have in future, particularly if we enter a climate of more religious conflict. I fear that we shall enter a climate in which there is at least more debate between religions, which is not a bad thing, but heightened debate may well lead to bad things.

Mr. Clappison: Is there not an important distinction between a case in which another offence has taken place and a case in which the offence is criticising
Column Number: 415
religion itself, when that is an offence? For example, is there not a difference between punching a Satanist in the face and saying that Satanism is evil?

Dr. Harris: I think that we all have to agree with the hon. Gentleman's point; I certainly do. It would have to be a peculiar person who treated both types of case equally. That is the point. There is a greater requirement to have clarity and avoid inappropriate prosecutions in relation to what we are discussing. That is why, to answer the hon. and learned Member for Redcar, in respect of these offences, which are defined solely by religion and do not rely on another crime to exacerbate them for the purpose of sentencing, the Government have seen fit to refer explicitly to the Attorney-General's permission to prosecute. As we shall see in relation to a group of amendments, there are arguments that that needs to be defined further. I know that the Attorney-General provision is already in the Public Order Act, but I think that in all the documents defending the decision to proceed with this legislation, the Government have relied on that, which suggests that they share at least some of my concerns about definition.

There is a difference between race and religion. It is perfectly possible and it is subjectively and, some would say, even objectively reasonable to describe a set of religious beliefs as evil or hateworthy. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield gave an example. We are all taught that evil is to be hated and wrong and that Satan stands for evil. However, some religions argue—some more strongly than others—that by definition if someone is not a follower of their religion they are damned in some way; they will go to hell, which is the repository for evil people who fail to see the light and repent. That is an interesting debate. I do not want to belittle those points of view, but that debate implies that strong words can be used about a set of beliefs that normally produce the reaction—a reaction that we are taught to have in school—that that is a nasty person. If they believe evil things, and sometimes, in their religious practices, do evil things that reject someone else's views, it is to be hated. The same applies to the BNP. I would not blame people who hated BNP supporters because of their views, so odious are they.

In both those cases one can see that the person may intend, in pursuing their own religious beliefs, to label other religions as uniquely or generally not good, or indeed evil, and that will produce hate. It is regrettable. It is not the sort of thing that I want to get into, but we must ensure that people are free to practise their religious beliefs in that way. We must capture mischief in other ways, using existing offences, particularly where violence is involved, or the common law offence of incitement, where such language is used to incite people to acts, but not to opinions of others.

I have received briefings on this aspect from a series of organisations. I do not think that I have ever said this before in the many debates about the reform of sexual offences, but I am grateful to the Evangelical Alliance—there we are; I have said it—for its briefing, because I agree with it that the Bill could act as a brake on its freedom to speak. However strongly I or others might feel about the Evangelical Alliance on a
Column Number: 416
religious basis or even, where it strays into that area, on a political basis, I do not think that anyone argues that it is a racist organisation. I have major issues with it on many of its views, but I do not accept that it is a racist organisation. If it is worried that its freedom of speech to proselytise will be restrained on the basis of saying that another religion is evil—I do not want to put words into their mouth, but it would not surprise me if some organisations wanted to say that—I do not see how its members can have the certainty that people require in law to ensure that they will not be prosecuted. I shall come in a moment to the indirect effects of the fear that there will be a clamour, almost a riot, of calls for prosecutions.

There are major problems with this proposal that do not apply to hatred directed against people on the basis of race. For example, I have never heard people argue against blackness per se, but we always hear people arguing against a set of beliefs, such as Christianity or Islam—or indeed Judaism, although that is not so common these days. I can only summarise the point of view by saying that it is because it is different. That gives us a prima facie basis for trying to find a different way—certainly not this way—of treating it as if it were the same.

Another major problem is the way in which the Bill will be interpreted. It will not only cause a fear of being prosecuted but a fear of calls for prosecution. People misunderstand the Bill. I have had a lengthy meeting with the Muslim Council of Britain, which is an extremely worthy organisation, because it can transmit a point of view on these issues with a great deal of experience and professionalism. I am grateful for the time that it has spent sending me information and talking to me. I have a great deal of respect for Iqbal Sacranie in particular, who I think merits that respect. I think that he now understands what the Government say people should understand—that the Bill is not about an extension of blasphemy. I am not saying that he does not understand that or that the MCB as an organisation does not understand it. However, until recently its comments suggested that it thought the Bill was the same as a blasphemy law.

5 pm

I shall read out some examples, not to attack the individuals concerned, but to suggest that if reasonable people such as them—with months and years of experience of negotiating such issues with the Government—believed that the law would cover what they thought it would, many people without their experience or insight, and without the perception that Mr. Sacranie now has, may well fall into the same trap. It is therefore important to read out these examples, and I am grateful to the Barnabas fund for providing them.

The fund writes,

    ''on BBC Radio 4's The Moral Maze on 14 July Iqbal Sacranie, Chairman of the influential Muslim Council of Britain . . . stated that he envisioned that under the new law any 'insult' or 'outrageous comments' about Islam or the Muslim community would be illegal, as would any 'defamation in the character of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him)'''

Column Number: 417

because that would be

    ''a direct insult and abuse on the Muslim community''.

I have heard that view repeated by several people in recent days and weeks. If that is the perception—and I fear that it is—the Government have not succeeded in sending a sufficiently clear message about what the provisions will cover. That will have terrible results for public order—to such an extent that the Government may be defeating their own purpose in the changes that they are proposing to the 1986 Act.

Mr. Grieve: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I touched on the same issue earlier. I derived exactly the same impression from speaking to those people and to other groups: they seem to have a mistaken view of what the Bill will do.

Dr. Harris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for supporting my point.

Another example involves Samar Mashadi of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, a website with which I am acquainted and which has a long record of working on these issues. Again, she is a strong supporter of the proposed law. On 16 October 2004—significantly after the Government had announced their intention to legislate—The Times reported that, in her view, under the new legislation:

    ''People won't be able to say that someone of a different faith is going to hell. They will have to articulate themselves in a more pleasant manner.''

I think that people should articulate themselves in a more pleasant manner, but I do not think that we should have a law forcing them to do so. If people cannot say that others of a different faith are going to hell, a lot of people whose job it is to preach that sort of stuff will be left without much to say. I hope, therefore, that the Minister accepts that there is a misunderstanding about the Bill. Again, someone in a senior position in a Muslim organisation failed, at the time, to understand the issue.

There are further examples. Hon. Members might remember the article by Charles Moore. In it, he simply hypothesised about someone saying something clearly unpleasant about the Prophet Mohammed. Iqbal Sacranie, in the rebuttal for which he was given space, clearly linked that insult to the Prophet and, therefore, the religion with the new law. That happened more recently than July; indeed, I believe that it was at the end of December. Iqbal Sacranie and, I hope, the Muslim Council of Britain now understand the Government's intention, but at the rate we are going, loads of people out there will still not have understood the distinction.

By not repealing the pointless, obsolete, damaging, discriminatory blasphemy law that we have at the moment, the Government have failed to make it clear that we are not talking about another blasphemy law, and I hope that we shall come to that later in the Bill. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), told the House of Lords Religious Offences Committee that he
Column Number: 418
personally felt that it should be repealed. The Government's failure to repeal it, however, having reviewed it in the context of the Bill, gives encouragement to those in other religions who feel that the provisions in the Bill are their version of it.

I do not doubt that the words I referred to are insulting to Muslims with regard to the Prophet Mohammed, and I would not seek to use them, but the consequence of the belief in the wider world that the proposals will give people protection against insult to their religion is that there will be calls for prosecution. It may well be that the Attorney-General says no, although there will be political pressure. It may even be that if a prosecution goes ahead, the courts will say no. However, the problem will be that the people calling for restriction on free speech will be encouraged by the fact that they can point to a law, just as those people who protested against the broadcasting of ''Jerry Springer: The Opera'' on the BBC were encouraged by the fact that there was a blasphemy law they could call on. That is what laws do: they encourage people. The fact that the laws might be misunderstood does not stop them being encouraged.

In the context of the strong feelings generated by insults to religion, we cannot simply regret that there will be calls for constraints on freedom of speech because it is insulting, but should actively play down the view of people of strong religious belief that they have protection from insult. We urgently need to tell people in today's society to cool it. We can ask people not to be insulting, but if they are, that is not an excuse for them to be intimidated, or for calls for prosecution under a law that does not exist. That is not what the Bill is designed to do.

The problem then is self-censorship. What theatre, if it had a choice of two decent plays with artistic merit, would choose the one that might attract demonstrations by a group who believed the play was illegal because it was inciting them—unless the theatre thought that would attract custom, which is a high-risk strategy? There is no doubt that some Sikhs in Birmingham felt incited, but they misunderstood that this Bill is about the incitement to hatred of Sikhs in other people. Time and again, however, I heard people on the radio saying that the play was inciting them to feel hatred against the people putting on the play. That is a complete misreading of the law, but still the damage was done, and the police were unable to guarantee the safety of the people performing in the play.

There are other examples. Salman Rushdie is in the newspapers again today, because it is unclear whether the Iranian regime is reiterating the fatwa issued against him, which was supported by a minority in this country. Self-censorship is a danger if the law is not introduced correctly, and I fear that it will not be, because of the way it is framed and understood. The way to deal with that problem—I hope the Minister will accept that it is a problem—is to frame any legislation to make it clear that it is about racism, and religion as a proxy for racism—

Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 20 January 2005