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Mr. Clarke: Any attempt to define a religion in statute would be doomed to failure. Clause 12 of the explanatory notes sets out a number of religions that are well understood to be religions, but at the end of the day, it must be for the courts, rather than this House, to decide exactly what the definition of a religion is.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I have heard many of these arguments before in the context of Northern Ireland legislation, and the Home Secretary will know that many of the issues have been discussed in the specific context of the troubles. What evidence does he have to suggest that legislating against such behaviour will necessarily lead to the improvements that he describes?
Mr. Clarke: I cite the legislation on race hatred, which has existed for some time. Such legislation has changed conduct in certain respects and for the benefit of society. That does not mean that all the issues have been resolved, and I do not believe that this Bill will suddenly abolish hatred everywhere. What I do believe is that it is an important step towards where we need to go.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): At the heart of these arguments is the question whether we can distinguish the beliefs from the believers. My right hon. Friend said, encouragingly, that he is prepared to look at amendments in a generous spirit. Does that mean that he is prepared to include a commitment in the Bill, stating that nothing in it will affect the ability of anyone to express intense dislike of bodies of belief?
Mr. Clarke: Actually, I think that the Bill's compatibility with the European convention on human rights, which I have asserted, goes a long way to achieving what my hon. Friend requests. In response to his specific question whether we are prepared to look constructively at proposals such as those that he suggests in Committee, the answer is yes.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend outlined the various stages and tests that a prosecution would have to go through, and it seemed to me that the central pillar was the consent and initiative of the Attorney-General. I put it to my right hon. Friend that, while I wish both him and the Attorney-General a
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long time in government, we may not always have a Labour or a liberal Government. We could have a Henry Brooke-type character in office, so we need safeguards to ensure that we do not introduce a new blasphemy law. What does the Home Secretary say to those who feel intensely about the failure of the Attorney-General to prosecute such things as the "Life of Brian" film or the Jerry Springer opera? It is important to reflect both on what might happen in respect of the future incumbency of the Attorney-General and on the frustrations of those who feel that there should be a prosecution when there is not one. How would the Home Secretary deal with those problems?
Mr. Clarke: There are two answers. First, the Bill will, if agreed by the House, be enacted into law and it will then be open to Parliament to amend it in future if it so wishes. It is significant that that has not happened with respect to legislation on race hatred, which has largely been successful. Secondly, there is the decision of the Attorney-General. I agree that every one of his decisions, whether or not they lead to prosecution, could lead to controversy. I nevertheless take the view that the Attorney-General's role in the Bill as in other legislation is important to ensure that the public interest is properly protected. I obviously cannot answer for how an Attorney-General will behave 15 years down the line, except to say that he is likely to behave in accordance with the law of the land.
Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): Will the Home Secretary deal with one serious difficulty? He will appreciate that many of us who are against this legislation would normally find themselves in the vanguard of those attempting to protect vulnerable minorities. The difficulty is that there is a profound difference between race and gender and religion. Our race and our gender are what we are and should be protected. Our religion is what we choose to believe. It is a system of beliefs, fundamentally and quite properly held. It seems to many here and out there that there is, in truth, very little distinction between one's religion and one's politics. People's politics are the same in being fundamentally held
Mr. Clarke: I do not believe that religion and politics slide together in the way that my hon. and learned Friend suggests. Secondly, there are many people for whom an easy distinction between religion and race is not accurate. Thirdly, I return to the previous point: we are talking about incitement to hatred, and I think that such incitement on the basis of race or religious belief should be driven out. I accept that, as my hon. and learned Friend said, there are genuine concerns that there is a risk of the legislation somehow tripping into other areas of freedom of expression. I am arguing, and I believe that my case is substantial and should be supported, that the Bill does not go over that line.
Mr. Grieve : What is the distinction between a political view and a religious view? Intense dislike of the British National party and its adherents is often expressed in this House, and that is considered proper enough. Why then is it considered improper to express intense dislike of a person because of his or her religious viewsif, for instance, that person were a satanist? The Home Secretary will agree that we should all speak with moderation, but will he explain why that distinction should be made in that fashion?
Mr. Clarke: I think that the answer is self-evident, and I am sorry that it does not appear so to the hon. Gentleman. I believe that there is a clear difference between the set of political beliefs and values that a person holds and the religion to which he or she belongs. They are different things, and it is our duty to try and drive out incitement to hatred in those areas.
Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend is right to say that many people have grave concerns about the Bill. I am a Christian, and I know that many people in the Christian lobby are very concerned about how far we are able to describe hatred. I support the Bill, and I am disappointed that many Christian organisations have stirred up so much misunderstanding. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that the element of hatred is clearly defined when the Bill is considered in Committee? That will reassure people with genuine concerns, as the Bill must be tightly drawn to ensure that people retain total freedom of speech in respect of these matters. In addition, I assure him that I do not want to have anything to do with people who are trying to defend the right to incite hatred.
Mr. Clarke: I am happy to give the commitment that my hon. Friend seeks. In Committee, we will look at any proposal aimed at providing a tighter definition of hatred in the Bill, so that we can avoid the concern that some may have. Finding the appropriate wording for that purpose will be difficult, but I am entirely open to trying, for the reasons that my hon. Friend set out.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way yet again on this very important matter. Does he consider that the Bill makes sufficiently clear the difference between an individual and a group? For example, the members of a religious group may take offence when a member of a different religious group begins to proselytise fiercely in an area. They may react by attacking the second group's religious beliefs and its members. That will be an attempt to defend their boundaries, but how can we ensure that that is not interpreted as an attempt to stir up hatred against the second religious group? Is not it the problem that intent becomes impossible to define?
As I set out earlier, a series of decisions about how that question is answered in relation to any particular case will have to be taken before a
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prosecution is put in hand. Secondly, I do not want to be boring but I must return to the key to this matterthe incitement of hatred. Many people proselytise in a variety of ways. That is legitimate, and it is an aspect of our society that we should welcome. However, proselytising can turn into incitement to hatred, and that is a different thing, which we are entitled to try and prevent.
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