Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Ms Blears: I have made it as clear as I can that the law on people who come from a racial group also covers a range of insulting, threatening and abusive behaviour that does not have to be racist but could extend to the religion of those in question. They are in the ambit of the legislation. It is on those grounds that I do not feel that the new clauses are necessary.

I am pleased that there is recognition across the House that we are trying to tackle real problems. Although I know that the Liberal Democrats share our ambition to ensure that the protection of the law covers everybody in our communities, I am a little disappointed that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and his party are not prepared to use their amendments to ensure that we are able to do that. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that there is a difference between the parties. I asked him a simple question: does he think it right that people should be protected from having hatred stirred up against them on the grounds of their religion?

5.45 pm

Dr. Harris: There is not exactly same requirement because there is no legitimate reason to criticise and attack race—that is the difference between race and religion. However, the opposite applies to religion on occasion. It is necessary sometimes to criticise religious belief, but there is no basis for criticising race. There is clearly a difference. The Minister might not consider it sufficient difference to get in the way of her legislative bulldozer, but there is a difference.

Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman fails to appreciate a fundamental part of the offence. It is not about criticism of the belief, but stirring up hatred against people defined by reference to their belief. He is saying that he does not believe that people should be protected from having hatred stirred up against them on the grounds of their religious belief. I want to establish that difference: the Government believe that people should be protected in relation to reference to their racial origin and reference to their religious belief.
Column Number: 430
The Bill will not stop criticism of the belief, but it will stop hatred being stirred up against people on the grounds of religious belief.

Mr. Heath: I do not want to extend the debate any further, but I want to make it absolutely clear that we do not wish to see incitement to hatred on any count whatever, whether that is race, religion, political belief or anything else. The difficulty we have with the Government's proposals is the inability to extricate criticism and proper discourse from incitement to hatred, which, as my hon. Friend says, is much more difficult in the case of religion than it is in the case of race.

Ms Blears: I am disappointed that the Liberal Democrats are not in a position to support us yet. I hope that they will consider the matter further. When the plans were first formulated, the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on home affairs, said that the plan to introduce the offence of incitement would close a loophole that had allowed inflammatory language to go unpunished, and that the Liberal Democrats would give the plans their support. I understand that they may have changed their position, but I am disappointed.

Dr. Harris: I have to clarify that. First, it is our view as expressed in new clause 31 that we recognise that there is a problem. The Muslim community complain that racists are using religion as a basis for incitement to racial hatred and hoping to escape the coverage of the law. That remains to be seen, and it is doubtful whether that can be covered. We would support, as we have made clear, a measure to ensure that that loophole is closed. In September, we debated that openly at our party conference—perhaps the Labour party has, too—and we decided that if the law went any wider than dealing with the problem as attacks on Muslims as a proxy for racial attacks, it would pose too great a problem for freedom of speech to make it worth while. That is certainly true of the provisions in the Bill.

Ms Blears: We have some clarity now. The Liberal Democrats want to plug the gap that is perceived but do not wish to take the extra step to ensure that Muslims, Christians, people of no religious belief, humanists and atheists are protected from having hatred stirred up against them.

Dr. Harris: Socialists?

Ms Blears: Not socialists; the measure is about religious belief. That clarity is welcome, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to think further about the matter before Report.

New clause 33 is the last item that the hon. Gentleman spoke about. It sets out four requirements for the Attorney-General to consider when making a decision about whether to prosecute under the offences of incitement to racial or religious hatred. He must consider whether the provisions are consistent with the Human Rights Act, whether the acts of the defendant were likely to imperil the safety of persons—which
Column Number: 431
links the effect to the intention—and whether there is a proper balance of human rights. Finally, there is a requirement in relation to publishing details of the various prosecutions that are carried out. As the Bill stands, all prosecutions would require the consent of the Attorney-General, which will prevent the provisions from being misused in private prosecutions.

We know that the public interest test applied by the CPS has ensured that prosecutions are brought only when necessary. Even though the Liberal Democrat amendments are supported by Justice, they are not necessary. The protections that they are intended to obtain are already covered. In new clause 33, proposed subsection (1A) makes explicit the existing requirements of the Human Rights Act, but the courts must already ensure that they make their decisions in accordance with the European convention on human rights. If a prosecution came before the courts, they would be required to act in a way that was compatible with articles 9 and 10 of the convention. They may well have to carry out that kind of balancing act—they have to do that in any event.

Dr. Harris: The Minister has just mentioned the courts, but we are talking about the decision made by the Attorney-General before the case reaches court. Her answer certainly does not address the basis on which that subsection has been promulgated. Will she deal with that? She may not feel that it is necessary, but what harm does it do to include it in the Bill?

Ms Blears: It is not right to legislate simply to reiterate the current position of the law. I am not in favour of unnecessary words. I seek to reassure members of the Committee that the Attorney-General—as well as the courts—already has a legal requirement to consider the ECHR under the Human Rights Act, so the provision is an unnecessary restatement of the existing legal position.

New subsection (1C) is intended to ensure that the Attorney-General considers the circumstances when making those decisions. As I say, both the Attorney-General and the courts are already bound in that respect, so we do not need to make it explicit. More interestingly, under new subsection (1B), the Attorney-General has to consider whether the defendant, in stirring up hatred, has imperilled the safety of a particular group. I am concerned about that element of the new clause because it requires a link between the behaviour of the individual intending to stir up hatred and the reaction among those in whom hatred that imperils the safety of others is stirred up. That is not part of the offence itself in terms of the way in which the Public Order Act offences are amended. It would be wrong to introduce into the Attorney-General's decision about whether to prosecute elements that are not part of the offence itself. That direct linkage is not part of the offence, so it would be wrong to make it a consideration for the Attorney-General.

Also, the provision appears to indicate that there would be no prosecution unless the defendant's acts were likely to imperil the safety of others. That is raising the threshold of the current offence. It would be
Column Number: 432
difficult to prove and it would make prosecutions for incitement even more difficult to bring than they currently are. I am certainly not in favour of that element of the new clause. Quite often there will not be an immediate reaction to the stirring up of racial hatred, so there will not be an immediate connection between the incitement and the imperilment of people. If there is that direct connection, we already have incitement provisions under the Public Order Act that cover incitement to commit a specific crime.

The provisions we propose are designed to fill a gap and to prevent hate-mongering, because racial and religious hatred in itself has a corrosive effect on our communities, whether or not it immediately leads to specific acts of violence. It is important that we have the kind of communities where there is tolerance and respect for each other's different views, opinions and ways of life. Rather than providing any additional guarantees of freedom of expression, the hon. Gentleman's amendments would create an additional loophole that extremists could exploit to continue stirring up hatred on the basis of religion.

I have nothing further to add and I know that Members are anxious to get on with the rest of the debate. I ask the Committee to reject the amendments.

Mr. Clappison: I will seek a separate vote on amendment No. 226.

Mr. Mitchell: This has been an interesting and detailed debate that has covered the ground effectively. There is nothing further to be said at this point, except that the Opposition would like to return to these matters on Report. They will be of wider interest on the Floor of the House. In the meanwhile, we will vote against the clause. We would have withdrawn our amendments, but as they have not been moved, that is not necessary.

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