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Most of the objections to the Bill seem to be based on the belief that it will be an extension of the blasphemy law, or that others will expect the blasphemy law to be extended. If the Government were proposing to extend the blasphemy law, I would oppose them to the last. I am not a believer and, as I have said, I have worked for the abolition of that law. I should remind Opposition Members that it covers only the Church of England, and that it does so only on the basis of a decision made at York summer assizes in 1838. If the Bill were widely drawn, it might extend that ludicrous law, but it is not.
There is no parallel with the situation in the Australian state of Victoria. To commit an offence under the Bill, someone will, through their expression or behaviour, have to intend to stir up hatred or, in all circumstances, be likely to do so.
The Bill would not stop "The Satanic Verses". It would not be useful against Gary Springer[Hon. Members: "Jerry Springer!"] Jerry Springer: he has changed his name to protect the innocent[Hon. Members: "Gary Streeter!] And if the Tories cannot even decide who Gary Streeter is, I must be allowed a slip of the tongue.
The existing protection of Sikhs did not make it possible to prosecute anyone for the performance of "Behzti" in Birmingham. Another objection that I have heard on television and the radio and seen in newspapers is that the Government are doing this only to regain Muslim votes that were lost as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Anyone who thinks that must be an innumerate half-wit. It cannot be true: the Government first proposed the law to the House in November 2001, following a massive increase in the number of attacks on Muslim people after the evil events of 11 September in New York and Washington, and in response to a request from the Muslim community for extra protection. That was a prompt, proper and proportionate response to the needs of a minority group.
There is a fear that the Bill may offer special privileges to religious groups. I am glad to say that it also covers people who do not have any religious beliefs, partly,
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I hope, as a result of representations by me and by other Labour Members. Lawyers have saidas have some Conservative Membersthat there may be problems with the interpretation of "incitement". The courts have always had problems with interpreting "incitement": there are all sorts of laws involving it. Then there is the question of how to define "religion". We deliberately did not define "race", which is quite difficult to define. We left the definition to the courts in the case of incitement to racial hatred.
Some objections to the proposals may be valid. No law is perfect. As has already been said, there is a danger of tit-for-tat activity on the part of one religious group against another; but, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has pointed out, there is a fair degree of protection from that, culminating in the requirement for the Attorney-General's consent. I think that we can expect the Attorney-General to try and keep the lid on tit-for-tat activity. There is the possibility of the Attorney-General's being accused of religious bias, but that did not happen much in the case of race, and I see no reason why it is likely to happen in the case of religion.
Another argument is that while it is appropriate to cover race in legislation because people cannot change their race, it is inappropriate to provide similar protection in regard to religion because people can change their religion. Let us think about it. The logic of the argument is that if people do not like being subject to assault and hatred because of their religion, they can always change their religion. That is a sickening invitation to intimidation. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), most people are born into their religion just as much as they are born into their race.
I believe that the laws against incitement to racial hatred have workedimperfectly, like all laws. Not many cases have been brought, but the test is not the number of cases that have been brought, or at least that is not the only test. The law that the Tories introducedthey deserve credit for thatbacked up the moral and ethical position that incitement to racial hatred was wrong. As a result of that declaratory effect, the stirring up of hatred on grounds of race has declined. Some people have been a bit more careful about what they say.
That brings me to the objections expressed by comedians and clerics. The comedians apparently think that they would be breaking the law if they made jokes about religion; but they would be breaking the law only if they used threats, abuse and insults with the intention of stirring up hatred, or if in all the circumstances they were likely to do so. If a comedian needs the right to do that, we have the right to stop him or her, and I believe that that is what we should do. I do not believe that any comedians, or clerics, need the right to set out to stir up hatred against any of their fellow citizens. They would be in a sad state if they did.
The police and others tell us that it is almost inevitable that there will be some terrible terrorist incident, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. I think that we need to enact the law in advance, and try to ensure that if there is a terrible incident we do not see the irrational but, again, almost inevitable attacks on, say, a particular religious group if members of that group are accused of being the cause of it. We need to be leading the way, not dragging along behind.
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The object of laws is to persuade people not to do things, partly by threatening them and partly by declaring that some things are right and some are wrong. If we do not take this opportunity to declare that incitement to hatred of people on the grounds of their religion is wrong, we will declare that we tolerate its continued existence. We should not do that.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I start, some may say uncharacteristically, by trying to accentuate a few of the positives about the Bill? As regards the analysis of the problem, I share a great deal of common ground with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), as do all Liberal Democrats. We think it is right that the Government have recognised a major issue, that there should be no complacency about the growth in Islamophobia and that there should be no equivocation in any quarter in the criticism of groups such as the British National party, and others that seek to promote Islamophobia and prosper on the back of it. The difficulty I have with the position outlined by the Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras relates to the Government's apparent insistence that their way of proceeding is the only way. They seek to present the choice as being between doing nothingcontinuing to tolerate the growth of Islamophobia, hatred attacks and the rest of itand doing what they wish to do.
This is the third time we have been round this particular course. Both this House and the other place have already had the benefit of considering the amendment tabled by my noble and learned Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, so we know there is another way of proceeding. That is the basis on which my right hon. and hon. Friends and I and Conservative Members have tabled the reasoned amendment.
I can see why the Bill is attractive to many groups, especially to many Muslim groups, but this is not a debate about who is supporting and who is opposing Muslim groups in ethnically diverse communities. I bring to the House's attention the comments of Dr. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament of Britain on 13 June, which were reasserted in The Guardian:
I hope that, in seeking to protect the vulnerable groups in their communities, those who come from ethnically diverse communitiesnot a label that one would normally attach to my constituencywill listen closely to such comments.
Dr. Evan Harris
: I think Dr. Siddiqui supports what has been called the Lester amendment. I invite my hon. Friend to comment on the points made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson). Under that amendment, offences not already covered by the public order offence of incitement to violence would be dealt with by extending race hate to cover the use of religious words as a proxy for race hate. It would also
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deal with the problem of discrimination between religions, as Sikhs and Jews would be covered under race hate by the fact that theirs are mono-ethnic religions. Does not the Lester amendment deal with all the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised?
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