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David Davis: No, I do not. My hon. Friend strikes at a very serious weakness at the heart of the Bill, and I shall return to that in a moment.

We do not need to pass a Bill dealing specifically and narrowly with religious hatred. Indeed, if the Government really want to act on this issue—if it is not just a posture, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) suggests—it would be simpler and preferable to introduce the notion of religious hatred being a pretext for racial hatred. That course of action was supported by the Conservative and Liberal parties in both Houses and by important groups such as Liberty. It would be simpler, more precise and more effective; it would do the job that is needed if this   problem exists; and it would achieve what the Government want without the need for a political clash and the elaborate gesture of a new law on the statute book.

I want to turn briefly to some of the specific drafting issues that concern us. As we have heard, there is no definition of the word "religion" in the Bill; instead, it will be for the courts to decide what is or is not a religion. In short, we are being asked to pass a contentious and illiberal piece of legislation without really knowing what we are voting for. Equally, by failing to define clearly what is meant by the word "religion", we are leaving the way clear for anybody—be they racists, far-right groups or whatever—to set themselves up as a religion and thereby give themselves protection, which is the very opposite of what we are trying to do. Would that stop mainstream politicians or anyone else from attacking their views, which most right-thinking people would find distasteful at least? Are we not also in danger of causing harm while seeking to do good? Members will be familiar, I am sure, with organisations such as Catalyst, a group that exists to help people escape from cults that have entrapped or enslaved them. If cults are to be accepted as religions, the good work that groups such as Catalyst do may become impossible.

The second problem is that of intent. The Bill states that the offence will be caused when "words, behaviour or material" are

That is a completely subjective judgment. How on earth can one see into the mind of someone else to judge how they will react to something that one might say? Once again, this holds important implications for the standards of debate and tolerance in our society.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab) rose—

David Davis: I give way to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee.

Mr. Denham : Given that the words that the right hon. Gentleman just quoted are, to all intents and purposes, the same as those in the Public Order Act 1986, does he believe that that legislation is fatally flawed?
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David Davis: I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman did not listen to the first half of my speech. The point about the Public Order Act 1986 is that it covers race, which is not a matter of choice. The 1986 Act is clear cut; the Bill is not. What constitutes an act to incite hatred of a race is obvious. However, it is not at all clear whether, for example, reading from the Verse of the Sword in the Koran would be covered by the measure, but it could be.

Mr. Denham: The point is not about race, to which we shall doubtless revert in the debate. The right hon. Gentleman's criticism of the drafting of the Bill was that it asked people to look inside others' heads to work out the effect of an action. Precisely the same test applies in the 1986 Act. If he thinks that it cannot be done, does he believe that the 1986 Act is flawed?

David Davis: The right hon. Gentleman misses the point. If one is discussing a perfectly reasonable point of debate, such as the nature of a religion or the consequences of choosing a specific religion, that has implications that a court could interpret, under the Bill, as inciting hatred. The sort of thing that one would say to incite hatred against a race is clear cut.

Chris Bryant : The right hon. Gentleman hangs his argument on the basis that there is a substantial difference between a faith and a race because one chooses one's faith but not one's race. I contest the argument that everyone chooses his faith. As the House of Lords report on religious offences made clear, many people in this country live in communities where they have little choice about the faith to which they adhere and are always believed by other people, because of the clothes that they wear, to belong to a particular faith. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to soften the edges of his argument about choice and faith.

David Davis: I am afraid that I shall not do so because I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's perspective. One is born with and cannot escape one's race. One may be born with religion, but one can decide to opt in, opt out or change. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Sir Gerald Kaufman : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

David Davis: No, I shall not, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: On that point?

David Davis: The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton has not been present for half of my speech. I shall not, therefore, give way.

It is no defence for the Government to say that the final decision lies with the Attorney-General. As we have experienced in recent years, the Attorney-General holds an increasingly political position in public life. He or she may hold particular religious views and there will be public pressure on both sides of the argument so that even when the Attorney-General refuses to consent to prosecutions, it will be a recipe not for more tolerance and harmony, but the opposite. We therefore have
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serious concerns about the Attorney-General's role in policing the proposed new law. It is a measure of the Bill's weakness that the Government believe that they need the so-called lock.

All human beings are equal before the law. That is precisely why the previous Conservative Government introduced the legislation on race. However, beliefs are subjective. They are chosen and can be picked up or put down on the basis of their merits, which are discovered only through reasoned argument and debate. The ability to hold those debates reasonably and sensibly has sustained Britain's culture of tolerance over the years.

I remind the Home Secretary that tolerance is displayed by putting up not with what one agrees with, but with what one disagrees with. As Voltaire said: "I disagree with what you say but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it." It is a well-known phrase, but Voltaire fled to Britain to escape persecution because of our culture of tolerance and free speech.

Doubtless, many contributors to the debate will be from the legal profession. They can highlight better than me the intricate failings of the Bill and the way in which it will be translated into law. However, for Conservative Members the principle is clear. The basis of our society is a belief in free speech. Britain learned long ago that more freedom of speech leads to more vigorous debate, which leads to more tolerance. Evil ideas should be met with challenge, not silence. Any attempt to limit free speech must be made only when the need to do so is proven overwhelmingly. On this occasion, it has not been.

I shall finish by quoting Mr. Soli Sorabjee, the eminent Attorney-General of India, who is possibly the greatest expert in the world on these issues. In his evidence on incitement to religious hatred to the Colville committee, he said that

It is in the understanding of this point that the real difference between the Government and the Opposition lies. That is why we shall vote against the Bill.

Madam Deputy Speaker: May I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a limit of 10 minutes on Back-Bench speeches?

5.40 pm

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): I shall start by making a declaration that I am a person of no religious belief, and that I have in the past sought to get rid of the blasphemy law. I do not believe that anyone should be harassed or assaulted, or live in fear, because of their religious beliefs, but they are and they do, in our country today. This happens to Muslim mothers collecting their children from school, and to Muslim men going to and from their place of worship. Muslim homes are stoned and fire-bombed. Yet our laws offer no special protection to Muslims against the incitement to hatred of them because of their religion, although they do protect Jews, Sikhs and members of the Church of England. I believe in equality before the law, and I therefore support the Government's proposals to make incitement to hatred of people on the
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ground of their religion unlawful. If Opposition Members want an example, we want to stop the hatemongers targeting their spleen against women who cover their heads and faces, which will happen somewhere in England today.

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