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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has had his time.

6.41 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I was pleased to be in the Chamber to hear the excellent maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik). He and I first met in the months following the disturbances in Burnley when, as a Home Office Minister, I was responsible for co-ordinating part of the Government's response. Burnley is my hon. Friend's home town, and he shared some of his experiences. What he said tonight reminds us that the debate we should be having is not an abstract one about this or that possible consequence of a piece of legislation in some other world. We need legislation for the society in which we exist—one of conflicts and division, where, as members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs heard in our most recent inquiry, the daily experience of the Muslim community in particular is of systematic abuse and discrimination.

I differ from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the Conservative spokesman, who advocated their fundamental view that such issues are best dealt with by debate and not by legislation. In the past, that argument has been used to resist race discrimination and equality legislation. When we look across Europe we find two things. First, the UK has a much more extensive system of legislation against racial discrimination, racial inequality and prejudice. Secondly, despite our manifest problems, we have a somewhat better record on dealing with the problems and challenges of a diverse society than those European societies that choose not to address them but to rely on the tradition of debate and tolerance. Over 30 years or so, the UK has with some success updated and adjusted its framework of anti-discrimination and hatred legislation to respond to emerging problems and issues.

That is what I believe the House is being invited to do, for the third occasion, on religious hatred. We are addressing not an abstract issue but the reality that unless we change the law, incitement to hatred and violence against major communities in our society will
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not be dealt with fairly and consistently in comparison with other religious and ethnic groups. The legislation will bring a degree of consistency to the treatment of different groups.

Mr. Boris Johnson rose—

Mr. Denham: I shall give way once.

Mr. Johnson: Can the right hon. Gentleman do better than Ministers on the Treasury Bench and give us a concrete example of a course of action or a speech or writing that the Bill would outlaw?

Mr. Denham: There is of course incitement legislation already. If one were to publish a leaflet saying, "We don't want Jews living round here, let's drive them out", it would be caught under a section of our existing legislation that would not catch the same Act if the word "Jews" were replaced by the word "Muslims". As has already been correctly pointed out, there is a range of legislation to deal with the incitement and harassment that can often apply in individual cases.

In the past, however, the House has decided three things: first, in relation to race, that action against a group of people, as opposed to particular individuals, is so pernicious and corrupting that it should be outlawed; secondly, that the corrupting effect of racial violence or harassment is such that it should be an aggravated offence—we treat it differently from the same action against other groups; and, thirdly, only two years ago, that an act against someone on religious grounds should be explicitly an aggravated offence. The one thing that we have not yet done is to extend protection to a religious group. We have an entirely anomalous situation: because of case law, some groups, especially Jews and Sikhs, are protected by the law, but Muslims and Christians are not. My argument is that we should extend that protection to those groups.

Dr. Evan Harris rose—

Mr. Denham: I shall not give way as the time for debate is limited.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Denham: This must be the last time.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I am very grateful. I should like my right hon. Friend to address an issue that causes me great concern. In Europe, in his lifetime and mine, there have been times when hatred has been stirred up against socialists and communists that has resulted in persecution and death. People who believed passionately in their politics or their faith were persecuted. Would my right hon. Friend be in favour of extending the law to protect those beliefs and value systems if the same situation occurred in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Denham: There is a perfectly legitimate argument, which has been raised by some groups in the debate on the proposals, about the extension of the
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principle of incitement against all sorts of groups and beliefs. However, the fact that such a debate takes place should not prevent us from addressing the problem in our existing law.

Dr. Harris: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Denham: No, I need to make progress and many Members want to speak.

I want to deal briefly with some of the major objections to bringing the law on incitement to religious hatred into line with our existing legislation. The House has already addressed some of the problems of definition. Two or three years ago, when we decided to make religion an aggravating factor, we implicitly accepted that the courts would be able to decide what a religion was; otherwise the changes to the law in 2001 would not have been workable. The House had no objection to making a religiously motivated offence an aggravated offence. That has already been accepted. We accepted that it would be a workable principle when we incorporated in law the European convention on human rights.

There is an argument that people cannot choose their race but can choose their religion. I do not believe that that argument holds water in any practical way. For the purposes of this debate, it is like saying to a Muslim who is fed up with facing aggravation and harassment, "You really brought it on yourself. Why don't you become a Jew?" That is a ludicrous argument.

To take the point further, a person cannot choose their parents and their ethnic background. So, if they happen to have Semitic parents and are Jewish, there is protection under the law, but if they happen to have Semitic parents and are Muslim, which is true of some Palestinians, although by no means all, there is no protection under the law. We have an anomalous situation. Race, religion and culture are in truth intimately intertwined, which was actually the very basis on which the courts chose to define Jews and Sikhs as ethnic groups under race relations legislation.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Denham: It is not possible to make the separation that hon. Members have tried to make.

Dr. Harris: Why will you not give way?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman knows that time is limited, even if one takes interventions. Many hon. Members wish to speak, so I want to make some progress.

Although this will not be expressed in the Chamber tonight, let us face up to the reality that this issue is controversial in our society because the main group of people who have expressed the concerns addressed by the Bill is Muslim. People in our society ask why we should extend such protection to Muslims. Although we do not hear this in the Chamber, people say, "Well, if they want to come here, why do they need this protection?" Of course, that rather sublimely ignores the fact that the vast majority of Muslims in this country are British, were born here, have nowhere else to go and have every right to be here.
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There is a pernicious argument that the Bill will protect a rather unpleasant faith. I have no faith and such criticisms of Islam seem to me to be as misplaced as characterising Christians as people who routinely abuse children for the purpose of casting out devils. Appalling practices can be found in pretty much every religion throughout the world but it would be absolutely wrong to characterise them all by those things that we do not like.

It would be right for the House to extend the protection of the law to religious groups, but there are concerns with which we must deal during the Bill's passage. I welcomed the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State implicitly accepted that the current problem with the Bill was not so much what it said as what most people believed it said. If most people believe that the Bill will make it impossible to have a reasonable discussion about religious belief, that is an objective problem.

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