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Mr. Clarke: I accept that there are concerns and my hon. Friend is right to say that they have been reflected in debate but I repeat that I do not believe that those concerns are justified, for the reasons that I have tried to set out. I specifically do not propose either a change to the blasphemy law or a new blasphemy law. The issues relating to "The Satanic Verses" were about blasphemy, not incitement to hatred. There are substantial protections in the Bill and in the conduct of any future Government which mean that the kind of change about which my hon. Friend is concerned could not happen.
Mr. Quentin Davies: Can the Home Secretary clear up a fundamental point and give the House an unambiguous assurance that a simple statement of religious exclusivitythat one religion has the key to salvation and that another or others do notwill not in any circumstances be regarded as incitement to racial hatred and thus a criminal offence?
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): May I take the Home Secretary back to the point about who defines what a religion is? When Lafayette Ron Hubbard set up scientology, he found it convenient to call it the Church of Scientology, but it is actually a dangerous organisation that preys on people with mental illness, and most of us would want to make that clear. However, it would be difficult to do so without indicating that one was very unhappy about those who promulgate scientology and make money from it. Self-certification of religion could be a means for outrageous and sometimes criminal organisations to protect themselves, which must be of considerable concern.
Mr. Clarke: The right hon. Gentleman and I have never discussed scientology, but on the basis of what he has just said I suspect we hold a similar view of the nature of that organisation. I must return to a point I have made already: the fact is that the Bill is about incitement to hatred, so for the right hon. Gentleman, or indeed me as Home Secretary, to set out our views and approaches about scientology is perfectly legitimate and will continue to be so.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I should like to be helpful to the Government, so can the Home Secretary give the House an example of a case of incitement to religious hatred that could have been brought under the proposals?
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab):
I have been listening carefully to my right hon. Friend and have no doubts about his good intentions, but does he acknowledge that many people are concerned not about the intentions or
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the content of the Bill, but that once it is enacted it could create a climate of over-cautious opinion whereby some people would avoid democratic scrutiny, debate or criticism of religion, or indeed of the absence of religious belief? Will my right hon. Friend do what he can, both in his remarks today and in the Bill, to alleviate those legitimate concerns?
Mr. Clarke: As I have already said, I am prepared to consider amendments and other proposals to do just that, but I emphasise yet again that robust argument about such issues is an essential part of our society and should be promoted. Indeed, when I was Secretary of State for Education and Skills I was involved in the development of the non-statutory framework for religious education in schools, which is predicated precisely on children at school being able to discuss frankly the strengths and weaknesses of particular religions. By the way, all the main religions in the country signed up to that as the right approach. We want more debate about those things, not less, and the Bill will make that more rather than less likely.
Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): We are all trying to grapple with what the Bill will ban and why. Will the Home Secretary clear up some doubt in my mind about whether it is intended to outlaw the public or private recitation of the many passages of the Koran that evidently incite hatred and the extreme dislike of Jews, Christians and other people on the basis of their religious beliefs? Will such recitation be captured by the Bill?
Mr. Clarke: Absolutely not, so I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he is looking for. I know that he normally sorts himself out when trying to get clarity, but the private and public recitation of bits of the Koran is not incitement to hatred.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Home Secretary said earlier that today is not the day for dealing with the question of reforming the blasphemy laws. However, I urge him to move forward on that issue because one of the obscenities of those laws is that they protect only the tenets of the Church of England. I have tried over the years to understand what those tenets are, but it is sometimes rather like knowing where the beginning and end of mist is. Will he indicate when and how he intends to move forward towards the reform of the blasphemy laws?
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
The Home Secretary is being very generous in giving way. The problem that many of us see with the Bill is not the expectation of a large number of prosecutionsI accept from the Home Secretary that the locks are there to prevent that from happening. We think, however, that there is a high likelihood of vexatious or other complaints to the police that will result in investigation and which will thus effectively lead to the harassment of people who are legitimately proselytising their faith or behaving properly, which will have an effect on free
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speech. The Home Secretary said that he was open to suggestions about giving guidance to the police and others on how to interpret the Bill. It might be useful to produce draft guidelines before the Committee stage so that everyone will know his exact intentions and the limitations of how the legislation will be used.
Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman has answered his own question in part because the guidance will be an important element of the process. The protections that I set out earlier to deal with the possibility of vexatious complaints are legitimate. I cannot give an absolute assurance to publish the draft guidance before the Bill is considered in Committee, but I assure him that we will produce it as soon as possible in the best way that we can.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): May I press the Home Secretary on the question of intent, which is a reason why many of us have severe reservations about the Bill? In reply to a question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the Home Secretary seemed to imply that intent would be required, but even given his remarks about the Public Order Act 1986, the explanatory notes seem to suggest that the accused would be responsible for the unintended and unforeseen reactions to his comments. Does he accept that that would take the law into dangerous territory and, if so, will he tell us how he will ensure that the Bill does not catch those who do not have the intent of inciting religious hatred?
Mr. Clarke: I do not think that I have anything to add to my earlier reply to a similar question, except to say, as I have been trying to say throughout the debate, that we will be open to amendments if they deal with such points. However, what I said earlier was very clear.
Mr. Streeter: Of course we all want to build a tolerant society in which there is respect for each other's religious beliefs, but I am worried about unintended consequences of the Bill that might increase racial and religious tensions. What is the specific activity currently going on out there that the Home Secretary wishes to arrest and which is not caught by legislation already on the statute book? Will he give examples of what is going on now that he is trying to stop so that we know why we are legislating?
Mr. Clarke: Incitement to hatred takes place in relation to certain racial and religious groups and individuals. There is currently the power in legislation to deal with that in relation to certain of those groups and not others. I believe and I argueI think that this is substantiatedthat we can deal with the matter effectively by ensuring that all groups are protected and covered.
John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab):
We all share the intents and the motives that lie behind the Bill. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that, in his opinion, there is not a risk that the effect of the Bill will be to dilute the incitement of racial hatred, a matter that
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all of us accept must be dealt with? The Bill has clarity but there is still difficulty in bringing cases before the courts. By adding religion and all the problems of interpretation, is there not a danger that we will throw the baby out with the bath water?
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