Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Dr. Harris: I understand the Minister's concern not to weaken the existing legislation on racial hatred and I am not seeking directly to do so, which is why I described my amendments as probing. There could be an architecture to make the qualification of recklessness as to the likelihood of stirring up racial hatred specific to religious hatred on the basis that it is more contentious. I do not believe that there was a debate such as this or similar objections to the provision on racial hatred, for the reasons that we have already heard. It could be argued that there is a need to have a higher threshold for religious hatred to ensure that people are not caught if they should not be caught.

Ms Blears: That brings us to the core of the difference between those on this side of the Committee and the hon. Gentleman. He seeks to distinguish stirring up hatred against people on racial grounds and stirring up hatred against people on the basis of their religion and beliefs. I shall ask him a simple question because it might help us to clarify the matter. Why should people have hatred stirred up against them on the grounds of their religion? That is at the heart of the legislation. I shall come to that in relation to new clause 17 and the hon. Gentleman's other amendments. There is a big difference in what is being said.

The hon. Gentleman is saying that there is a significant difference between race and religion and that the provisions to protect people from racial hatred should be stronger than the provisions to protect them from religious hatred. That goes back to the core: is race a matter that is not chosen, whereas religion is chosen, because it concerns belief? There is a significant difference between the parties in the way our proposals are framed. We think that it is as wrong to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion and belief as it is to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their race. That is a fairly large distinction between us.

Mr. Clappison: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Blears: I am anxious to make progress, because we are under pressure. I am sure that such matters will be debated again on Report in great detail.

I turn to amendments No. 322 and 323. Amendment No. 322 proposes that

    ''religious belief or lack of religious belief'',

in proposed section 17A of the 1986 Act, in paragraph 3 of schedule 10, be replaced with ''religion or belief''. There are also consequential amendments to that proposal. There are three reasons why I want to stick with the original wording. First, there are other relevant criminal law provisions. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar said, there are already definitions in criminal law. For reasons of consistency we have sought to keep that wording. Secondly, the term ''religious belief or lack of religious belief'' is narrower than ''religion or belief'' and I am keen for the legislation to target the mischief that we have identified.
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Mr. Grieve: I have no doubt that if amendment No. 322 were accepted, the provisions would extend to the views of the BNP—or, indeed, my views or the Minister's.

Ms Blears: I was about to say that we would probably have unhelpful legal battles about whether ideologies such as Marxism fell into that category. That is not territory on which we want to trespass. The third reason is that we want to tackle the mischief of which we have become aware.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon mentioned humanists and atheists, which I think are adequately covered by the term ''lack of religious belief'', rather than simply ''belief''. The legislation will protect such groups from the stirring up of hatred against them on the grounds of their lack of belief. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that the legislation is properly targeted and that if it were extended to belief in general, we would be on even more controversial territory.

Several amendments would change the title of several provisions from ''racial or religious hatred'' to ''hatred against racial or religious groups''. We tried to make it clear in the explanatory notes that we want to protect groups of people rather than ideologies. However, there is merit in what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon says, so I ask him not to press the relevant amendments on the understanding that we will give the matter further consideration before Report. Hon. Members have pointed out that we need to make it very clear in our communications to people exactly what the legislation covers and what it does not cover, so that we do not run the risk of people bringing unnecessary prosecutions. I undertake to do that by Report stage.

Amendment No. 222 would remove clause 119, to be replaced by new clause 17. The alternative version from the Liberal Democrats is new clause 31 and there are similarities between the two proposals—they are trying to get to the same place. New clause 17 would amend part 3 of the Public Order Act, so that people who held a particular religious belief would be protected by the offence of incitement to racial hatred, if their religious beliefs were associated with a racial group. That is the key phrase. New clause 17 is unnecessary because part 3 of the Public Order Act already refers to the intention to stir up racial hatred. It does not matter if the words used are not racist words. Under the Public Order Act, the words could be religious words in relation to those people who qualify because they are from a mono-ethnic background. If Jews or Sikhs were involved, the words would not need to be about their race—they could be words about their religion. The proposal from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield therefore does not take us any further from where we are now. It is designed simply to address the gap that has been identified, whereby religion is used a proxy for race. That is part of what we want to do, but new clause 17 does not address that further territory, which is a real problem that we want to address.
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Mr. Grieve: I think that new clause 17 does take us slightly further, because it identifies religion as one of the potential hallmarks of a racial group, whereas the previous legislation did not. That is the point at which the Minister parts from us. The Bill as drafted goes too far. My proposal aimed to see whether there was a sensible point at which there was a meeting of minds. If the Minister does not see that as a good departure point, I suspect that it highlights what I said when I spoke originally, which is that it is difficult to see how the legislation can be amended from its present form to allay my anxieties. I fear that that leads inevitably to the position that we will be compelled to vote against the clause.

Ms Blears: There is a difference between our positions and it would be wrong not to acknowledge that. The hon. Gentleman's amendment is designed to cover the position in which people are members of a race, but it does not address the position of members of the Muslim community, who are not defined by their racial or ethnic group, or members of the Christian community, who are similarly not identified with a particular nationality or background. The amendment does not fill that gap.

Mr. Grieve: I am not sure that I agree with the Minister. Of course she is right about the Muslim community. There are white Muslims, African Muslims and Muslims from large numbers of Asian countries, as well as all sorts of other places. However, many manifestations of hatred are, in my experience, directed against fairly defined communities that do have characteristics that are ultimately founded on being a racial group, even though the hatred may well be expressed in terms of religion. She is right to point out that the existing legislation makes some provision for that. It highlights the question of whether this legislation is necessary. My amendment intends to make a little more provision for that scenario.

Ms Blears: I have been given a couple of examples that may help the hon. Gentleman. Under existing legislation, a statement by a far-right group that Pakistanis are a threat to Britain because they are Muslims and want to kill Christians is potentially covered by the race offence, because it is likely to stir up hatred against a national group with which that religious group is associated—Pakistanis. Similarly, the race offence might apply if a far-right group said, ''All those Muslims from a particular town are a threat to Britain because they want to kill Christians'', if all the Muslims from that town are from a particular racial group; if, however, they are not, the race offence would not cover them. The question for the court is whether, considering all the circumstances, the actions are likely to stir up hatred against a group of people defined by their race or nationality, as opposed to a group defined by reference to their religion.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman cannot get away from the fact that he would not be providing a level playing field for people in this country to have their rights protected, because groups defined by their religion would not have the protection of the law under
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the race offence. We should be honest that the result of his amendment would be to leave some people without the protection of the law in the way that we intend.

Dr. Harris: I understand what the Minister said. There is a disagreement between the two sides. In defence of both the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and new clause 31, I say that I hope that she will accept that in the area in which we agree—that we ought to act when religion and religious words are used as a deliberate proxy for racial hatred—new clause 31 and new clause 17, even if not perfectly drafted, would help in making it absolutely clear to the courts, prosecutors and potential troublemakers, mischief makers and worse that that is the case. Will she concede that? I accept that the other group that she is concerned about would not be covered by the new clauses.

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