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Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con) rose—

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD) rose—

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con) rose—

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Marshall-Andrews rose—

Mr. Clarke: It is very flattering to have so many people wanting to get in. I shall not give way now but, as I did earlier, I give a commitment to allow several people to intervene before I sit down. I have noted the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and he will be glad to know that I intend to refer to him in my speech. I am sure that he will be thrilled to hear that I am due to say:

I shall try and deal with that properly when the time comes, but for now I intend to make a little progress.

The Bill seeks to address the anomaly that means that Jews and Sikhs are protected under the existing law, but that other faith groups, and people of no faith, are not protected. I think that that is simply not right and that the problem needs to be addressed.

The Bill seeks to fill a gap in the law that means that people can stir up hatred against others because of their religious beliefs. Such people may be extremists using religion as a proxy for race or nationality, but they may also be people of faith stirring up hatred of people who do not share their beliefs. That behaviour is not caught by the current set of religiously aggravated offences or by existing incitement offences. It is not only right but essential that the law should provide protection in that area.

As I have said before, legislation is not a panacea. It will not solve all the problems in our communities. We have to do a great deal of work to address those problems, using measures other than the law, but all those other things that we might do do not remove the need for this Bill.

Mr. Streeter: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will in a moment, as I said.

The Bill consists of just two clauses and a schedule. Clause 1 will give effect to the schedule. The schedule will amend part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986, to create offences that involve the stirring up of hatred against groups of persons on the grounds of religious belief or
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lack of religious belief. The Bill will therefore introduce the new offences by extending the existing law on incitement to racial hatred rather than by creating a new self-standing set of offences.

In amending the 1986 Act, the schedule deliberately does not define what amounts to a religious belief. It will be for the courts to decide what constitutes a religious belief for the purposes of the legislation. However, for the purposes of article 9 of the European convention on human rights, any religion must have a clear structure and belief system, and case law suggests that any religious belief will need to attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance. The beliefs must also be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity.

The schedule will make a clarifying amendment to the existing offence of stirring up hatred against persons on racial grounds, to make it clear that material must be likely to be seen by someone in whom hatred was likely to be stirred up.

Finally, clause 2 makes it clear that the proposed legislation applies to England and Wales only.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I have said that I will give way later. I will—I am ready to deal with points on these issues—but I think that it will be for the convenience of the House if I make a bit more progress before doing so.

Section 27(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 provides that the amended racial and religious hatred offences will require the consent of the Attorney-General before prosecutions can be instituted. As I have already said, that provision, together with the high threshold of hatred, means that spurious and vexatious cases will not come to court.

That is the detail of the Bill. It is clear from previous debates and from the exchanges that we have already had today that the debate is not so much about the principle of what the Government are trying to achieve as about concerns that relate to the detailed wording of the legislation, and I am sure that that there will be considerable discussion about that.

As I have said before, I want to emphasise that, although dealing with incitement to religious hatred was a clear manifesto commitment, it is the job of Parliament to legislate, and I respect that role. We are therefore approaching this issue in an open-minded way, and I hope that the Opposition and others will also do so. We will carefully consider any suggestion for how the wording of the Bill might be improved—in particular, to address concerns about freedom of speech.

We may be able to do other things in relation to the legislation that might ease people's concerns. Such proposals might involve not the wording of the legislation itself, but practical ways in which we can ensure that it operates in the way intended. For example, that might include guidance, drawn up in consultation with all interested parties, to the police, faith groups and community leaders. It might involve looking at how the effectiveness of the offence can be monitored. I am sure that we can return to those issues in subsequent debates.
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The final aspect that I want to mention is the question of blasphemy. As I made clear in response to a question from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon during the debate on the Queen's Speech on 23 May, any reform or repeal of blasphemy must begin on a considered basis across all faiths. I acknowledge the value of the analysis and report on religious offences published by the House of Lords Select Committee in 2003. Nevertheless, if we were to take any action on this issue, we would need to consult interested parties, particularly the established Church, and examine the issues in some detail. I am happy to discuss the matter with anyone and to examine how it might be taken forward, but the Bill is not an appropriate vehicle for such a discussion.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I said that I would give way again before I conclude, and I will do so two or three times.

Dr. Evan Harris: I hope that we will have a chance later in the debate to return to blasphemy. Does the Home Secretary accept that the Bill will have a chilling effect and that the stop point of the Attorney-General is no consolation to those who have been arrested or questioned by the police? Let me give an example for argument's sake. If a group of fundamentalist Christians are spreading vilification and humiliation against gay people—I notice that they do not have the protection that the Home Secretary is extending to those who follow a religion—and I were to say outside the House that those Christian bigots should be despised and, indeed, hated for their views, can he guarantee that I would not be visited by the police and questioned, let alone reach the stage where the Attorney-General decides, for the convenience of the Government, to let me off?

Mr. Clarke: First, no Attorney-General would consider the matter from the point of view of Government convenience at any time. Secondly, the assurances that I have already given meet the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. [Hon. Members: "No, they don't."] Yes, they do. Thirdly, what the hon. Gentleman must take very seriously indeed when he uses the word "chilling" are the comments made a moment or two ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). The chilling nature of what happens is experienced by people who are subject to the incitement to hatred, and we must deal with removing that chill.

Ms Abbott: Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people who are horrified by the rise in anti-Muslim abuse, violence and harassment since 9/11, described by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) in his article in the Evening Standard today, and who have themselves been victims of racism, are none the less troubled by the Bill? One reason why some of us are troubled is that we remember when the clamour first arose for the protection of Islam as a religion, in the wake of publication of "The Satanic Verses" when there were marches, book-burnings and demands for protection. The demand then was for a blasphemy law for Islam, and the demand now is for a blasphemy law
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for Islam. How can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the measure will not, by case law and other mutations, turn into just that: a blasphemy law for Islam?

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