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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his allotted time.
 
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7.11 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on his maiden speech. I knew his predecessor for many years, as he served as Minister of Agriculture, and I have had many agricultural interests in my day as a chairman in the Stormont Administration. I always found the hon. Gentleman's predecessor friendly, interested in the matters that I brought to him and a good constituency worker. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will follow that path. I congratulate him on making his maiden speech from the Government Benches. I, too, made my maiden speech from those Benches. It was a unique affair, because I spoke so loudly that I stopped proceedings in the House of Lords. I thought that that was to my credit, but evidently it was not. However, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech, and I am glad that he looks forward to his time in the House. I have been here 35 years, and if he is here as long he will deserve his pension.

This has been an interesting and timely debate, and the House has grasped what we are up against. I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) about everything, but I certainly agreed with her today. If we cannot defend what we believe to be the right faith, we are not worthy of it, whatever faith it is. We have a right to defend it with the gifts that God has given us. We have a right to quote our historical background, and what has emerged from it. I do not need to put up a sign saying that I am a Protestant, as everyone knows that. I believe that everyone who has a faith should be allowed to preach it, declare it, defend it, and stand up for it. There should not be any curtailment of such activities.

Chris Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Rev. Ian Paisley: Perhaps I will do so in a minute or two. I have only 10 minutes, and it is a sad day when I can preach for only 10 minutes.

The Christian faith and various surrounding denominations have a background, which must be respected. I welcome the Home Secretary's assurance that if a preacher defends what he has believed to be the doctrine of his own Church for many a long year it would be wrong to tell him, "We don't like that language, and we accuse you of inciting people to violence." I hope that before proceedings on the Bill are completed it will include a provision saying that quotations from the Bible, which I believe to be the word of God, and the great religious documents cannot be taken and used against someone because they adhere to them. I do not adhere to the Council of Trent's decree that a person who believes in justification by faith should be anathemised. I have escaped the fires of hell so far, and I intend to do so in another world.

Mr. Leigh: Just wait.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I have faith in Jesus Christ, the saviour of sinners, and I recommend it to the sinner who is trying to heckle me.

Our debate has a history, because many police in this country—I have experienced this myself—have recently decided that certain religious statements are not
 
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acceptable. Street preachers have been harassed, as have people who adhere to theologies with which I do not agree. They are entitled, however, to express their beliefs. Voltaire said that he might not agree with someone, but he would fight for his right to express himself. If an atheist can say that, so can I. We have a right to declare what we believe to be right. The Bill will send a sad signal to our nation if it is not made perfectly clear to the people that it cannot be used for those purposes.

The proof of the Bill's success will be in the way in which it is put into effect. The Attorney-General will be in the position of being Pope, and he will make an infallible decision about whether religious intimidation or religious agitation has been perpetrated. I do not know the present Attorney-General, and I do not know who will be the next Attorney-General. I do not know what will happen in our land, but I would not like to put my faith in any Attorney-General to protect the freedom that ought to be mine. There are many misconceptions about the Bill. I missed part of our debate today, because I had an appointment with the Home Secretary to discuss this very matter. I told him that many people think that the Bill has been introduced in the House as a sop to Muslims. That is a general opinion around the country. There is a general belief that the freedom to preach in the streets and so on will be curtailed. The issue must be settled by the House, and our debate has been more than useful, as Members who are poles apart religiously believe in the right of every Member to express himself, stand up for what he believes, take what comes to him, and give as good as he gets. That is good for democracy and good for the country. It reflects the true spirit of this nation and can do nothing but good. But I hope that before the Bill comes to the end of its passage, it will be changed in such a way that there will be no doubt about what it is really about, as the Home Secretary said.

7.20 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I celebrate the fact that Britain is one of the most secular societies in the world. After years of political effort and centuries of burning or banning those who disagreed with the prevailing religion, we have reached a position in this country where those who believe in gods do so almost entirely within a liberal tradition—the British culture of respect and tolerance.

It is no longer illegal for us to have a Roman Catholic Speaker or a Jewish Prime Minister, if we so choose. Centuries of aggressive zealotry have taught us by painful experience that practising beliefs and rituals in private, providing others are not harmed, is preferable to public confrontation, social exclusion, truth tests and sometimes death. It is precious and, in a democracy, a priceless state to have attained. Those who wish to disturb it, even for the best motives, should think carefully, above all about the unintended consequences.

Instead of separation and legislation, we need education and integration, not eliminating diversity, but guaranteeing it for all those who are prepared to guarantee it for others. The Bill is bad law. It is not malicious. It is a well-meaning measure, I am sure, honestly offered on the sofa or anywhere else as reassurance from No. 10 Downing street, but good intentions are not enough to bring a Bill before the House.
 
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We are told that the Bill will help equality of treatment. If equalising religions were the real aim, far greater progress could have been made by seizing this perfect moment to abolish the blasphemy laws, whose repeal was suggested by the Law Commission over 20 years ago. When is the right time, I ask the Home Secretary, for those laws to be repealed? Many of us might have been able to support the Bill's provisions if they applied equally to all religions.

Similarly, if equalisation was the aim, No. 10 could have guaranteed the teaching of all religions and all non-religious value systems in all our schools, which is not the case at present. Instead of reducing the current religious privilege of Christianity in order not to offend some Christians perhaps close to home and to appease some UK Muslims, No. 10 is choosing instead to extend religious privilege. Many of us in the House, content to tolerate existing faith schools, were deeply annoyed at No. 10's successful attempt to extend their number even further by Executive action, without even bothering to consult the House. It beggars belief also that a Labour Government have sponsored an academy that spouts creationism to our young children. When it comes to pushing ever more religion into politics, my view is that not only should we stop digging, but we should have a serious programme of filling in the holes.

The biggest problem with the Bill is false expectations. It is designed to ensure that people who take religion seriously will feel protected. Sadly, exactly the opposite of what No. 10 intends will happen. If passed, the Bill will be a charter for zealots and self-appointed religious vigilantes. They will be on an each-way winner. Either they will be able to obtain the prosecution of their opponents, or, more likely, they will be refused, giving them the maximum opportunity for self-publicising martyrdom and for challenging the authority of moderate members of their faith.

Ministers tell us that those who look to the Bill to protect them from challenge, criticism and debate, let alone ridicule and contempt, will be disappointed. Those who want to ban a play, stop the criticism of the systematic subjugation of women by some religions or force children to wear particular forms of dress will feel aggrieved by this law if, as the Minister promises, it does not give them redress. The finesse between a law and a signal may well be appreciated by moderate religious and political leaders, but it may not be appreciated by their communities.

That will play into the hands of the Protestant bigots, the Catholic zealots and the Muslim fundamentalists alike, for this law will not defend them or their icons from insult or offence. Indeed, cases are likely to concentrate on those who specialise in inflammatory language to prove how devout they are. Rather than mainstream religious communities being defended by the Bill, it is religious extremists who will be queuing up, keen to generate press attention and followers by provoking judicial martyrdom, made all the sweeter if it is at the hands of other faiths.

Ministers may claim that the Bill will not allow religious extremists to protect themselves from criticism or challenge, or to suppress their opponents. Unfortunately, Ministers have no ability to predict how the Bill will be received or used by any particular sect
 
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within any religion. Throughout our country, there are members of faith groups and sects who seek to dictate how other people live, particularly if the other people are young, gay or women. Those people treat themselves as the custodians of their religion. They interpret any challenge to themselves as an attack on their religion. They will be the first to seek to use the law, and perhaps the citizen's arrest powers that probably go with it. They will publicly demand prosecution of their opponents and the seven-year maximum penalty.

It will be up to the Attorney-General to accept or refuse such requests, often against a backdrop of controversy or perhaps even in the run-up to a general election. That is a job that no one in his office should have to perform. It will force him to make judgments on matters of faith. It will turn Ministers of the Crown into ministers of religion. It makes the Government judge of what constitutes a religion, who belongs to it, who represents it and when it is permissible to attack it. No. 10 cannot have it both ways. Either the Bill does the business protecting religious minorities, or it does not. Either way, there are consequences to be faced.

There are protections already in law. The law already protects everyone from abuse and harassment. As was pointed out earlier, it is only four years since we added religious aggravation in order to justify additional sentencing under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

Just as there is great confusion in the House, as we have heard in the debate, as to what the provisions will actually deliver, one can imagine the impact of all sorts of judicial interpretation, which I raised earlier with the Home Secretary. He called it "case creep". Already case law has extended racial hatred offences to Jews and Sikhs. That was not in the original legislation. One may argue that that is welcome—I certainly would—but one cannot argue that it was specifically in the Public Order Act 1986. An extension of the Bill might also take place. Those who will be absent from the courtroom will be the vast majority of British people from all ethnic backgrounds who care nothing for the esoteric debates of religious fundamentalists. They will be chilled and silenced by the courts' decisions.

One does not need to be prosecuted for religious hatred. Fearing that they may be prosecuted will be sufficient to inhibit people, whether they are commentators, comedians, the man down the pub, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or Members of the House. Open, honest, vigorous debate around ideas should not give way initially to silent acquiescence, sullen grievance and the festering, repressed anger in which racism breeds. Yes, there are those who say, "My religion, my way, allows me to indoctrinate children, to allow no debate, to permit no disagreement, to disallow all alternatives." They are entitled in our culture to think that, but I must be allowed to challenge those views without fear.

My culture comes from the Enlightenment, from rational thought, from scepticism and from several centuries of learning and progress of which there is more to come. It revels in diversity, not exclusivity; it exults humanity and ethical values above superstition and man-made churches; it is worth fighting for; it values tolerance above all things; and it is finished if we, its representatives, refuse to draw lines and defend them. I will not support the Bill tonight.
 
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7.30 pm


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