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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I do not follow the Home Secretary's argument that it is possible to dissociate criticism or intense dislike of a religion from intense dislike of the person who practices it. The word "hatred" simply means intense dislike. Where in the statute is the difference made clear? It seems to me that once someone intensely dislikes the religion itself and criticises it for that reason, it follows inevitably that that person intensely dislikes whoever is practising it. The only mechanism for which there will be no prosecution is the Attorney-General's discretion. We are passing very wide-ranging law, and then leaving it to the Attorney-General to restrict its scope.

Mr. Clarke: The Attorney-General, in whatever Government, is an important protection. Secondly, and more seriously, there is a qualitative difference between intense dislike, in the hon. Gentleman's words, and incitement to hatred. That is an important distinction.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: A number of hon. Members want to intervene. I am going to give way to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), make a bit more progress and then give way again.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): What will be the crucial test of an offence? Will it be that the words uttered were intended to stir up racial hatred, or will it be that, as a result of the words being uttered, an act of religious hatred followed on the part of a third party?

Mr. Clarke: Intent is the answer to that—it is the conduct of people intending to incite racial hatred.
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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: As I said, I am going to make some more progress and then I will give way.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Clarke: No. I am going to make some progress and then give way, as I said.

The European convention on human rights makes it clear that the exercise of freedoms and the right to freedom of expression are protected. When the Joint Committee on Human Rights met to consider that and reported on 1 March 2005 on incitement to religious hatred, it accepted the existence of a serious, albeit limited, problem of incitement to hatred on religious grounds. It added:

The considerations of that Joint Committee ought to be an important point of reference for this debate, and I hope that they will be.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I am going to give way in a few moments. I know a lot of hon. Members want to intervene. I will make a bit more progress and then give way.

The offence is not a new blasphemy law, despite what some critics of the Bill say. It is about protecting people, not faiths. It is there not to stop people criticising religions or the symbols of faith but to prosecute those who seek to set one community against another. It would not stop a play such as "Behtzi" or "Jerry Springer the Opera". The offence would not cover anything that denigrates a particular faith or causes offence because of ridicule. Robust debate about belief is central to the very being of this country. The Bill will not affect that in any way.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Home secretary give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will in a second.

I understand that the worries of hon. Members on both sides of the House and of people outside are genuine—I do not believe that anyone's worry is synthetic—but they are misplaced. I profoundly believe that it must be a central value of our society that no one should have to live in fear because of their beliefs. I make no apology for seeking to address that.

David Davis: The Home Secretary said in response to an intervention that it was required that the individual being prosecuted intended to incite religious hatred. Nothing in the Bill insists on that. Indeed paragraph 5(3) simply refers to

That does not require any intent whatsoever.

Mr. Clarke: The Public Order Act 1986 makes the position clear. Section 18(5) provides that the prosecution
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must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person either intended his words or behaviour to be threatening, abusive or insulting, or was aware that his words or behaviour might be threatening, abusive or insulting. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked me to choose between intent and unintended effect, if I may put it like that. That is why I answered her question as I did, but I have tried to answer more precisely in relation to the last intervention.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): The problem with interventions by Conservative Members is they are totally unrepresentative of the population as a whole in that hardly any of them are open to the kind of humiliation that many members of our communities are open to. If they were, they would not be criticising this legislation. When my right hon. Friend refers to conduct, he arouses in my mind the case of Mrs. Shahzada, a constituent of mine who went to a shop in central Manchester soon after 9/11. She wears a veil over her face, and the shopkeeper refused to serve her because she was, to his perception, a Muslim. That was hatred against an individual, not a criticism of Islam. It is about time that we had an Opposition who understood the kind of country that we live in today.

Mr. Clarke: My right hon. Friend makes his point and gives his example very clearly.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned the play "Behzti", which is often used as an example by opponents of this Bill. Would he remind the House that if that play attacks any community, it is the Sikh community, which is of course already covered by existing law, as is the Jewish community. That is yet another example of people using false arguments and not facing up to the very real prejudice—primarily against Muslims and Hindus—that currently cannot be caught by the law.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right and her description of the issues to which that play gave rise, particularly the Sikh religion, is correct. I should make one point in mitigation, however. Many people are genuinely worried about this issue, which is why they raise it in the way that they do, whereas others are trying to be misleading. I am keen to try to lay genuinely to rest in this debate as many of the existing myths and uncertainties as I can.

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): While I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says about the Bill's scope on sexuality, can he assure my constituents in the gay and lesbian community in particular that they will still be able vigorously to rebut views held by other members of the community who are protected by the law? Does he agree that it would be more sensible to create a general offence of incitement to hatred that encompasses all aspects of life, not just religion?

Mr. Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend's first comment and can indeed give her the assurance that she seeks, but I do not agree on her second question. The definition of law in these areas is so tight and so difficult that the creation of such an offence could prove too
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general and give rise to misunderstandings. That is why I defend the Bill's approach, which is to focus on a particular aspect of incitement to hatred. That is not to deny the existence of other hatreds, or even to deny the case for legislating against them in certain circumstances, but with respect, dealing with them in a generic way is not the best way to proceed.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. I commend the Government's motives—if they are genuine—in seeking to rid society of incitement to racial or religious hatred. However, it seems very odd that the Bill contains no definition of a religion. In seeking to lock people up for five to seven years, the Government must surely define what those people have offended against.

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