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Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has said. I did not agree with everything that he said about religion and Churches, but I agree with the main thrust of his argument on the unintended consequences that will flow from the Bill. I want to make five points about the Bill, all of which are, I hope, reasonable, and explain why, apart from the fact that we are on a three-line Whip, I shall oppose it this evening
I strongly support the Government's intention to build a more tolerant society. Most hon. Members know that I come from a committed Christian background and that I am involved with the Church in this country, but I recognise the value that the Muslim faith and other faiths bring to this country. We live in a modern, pluralist society, and we must find space for each other and get along together. We must exchange ideas, but at the same time we must co-exist. I have much more in common with a strong Muslim than I do with an atheist, which is why many of my friends are Muslimswe have great debates and a great deal in common. We must build a pluralist society in Britain, or we are all doomed.
First, the Government do not know what is in their own Bill. During his recent appearance on the "Sunday" programme, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) was asked whether the question, "Was the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile?", which I would not ask of my own initiative, would fall foul of this Bill. His answer was "yes", if the person asking the question intended to incite religious hatred. However, that is not the right answer, because the matter concerns not only intent, but whether the act is likely to stir up religious hatred, which is an entirely different test. The difference between those two offences is huge, and it is deeply worrying that the Minister does not appear to know the test in his own legislation, and I hope that that matter will be clarified.
Secondly, the Bill is unnecessary. Several of us have asked the Home Secretary and other Labour Members to give us examples of activities, speeches and events that take place in our country today that this Bill will catch and that existing legislation does not already catch. We have not heard a single example that would not be covered by public order offences or other religious or racial legislation currently on the statute book.
Ms Thornberry : I shall give the hon. Gentleman an example. A young lady on her way to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school is on the bus with her head covered. A man starts shouting at her and abusing her because she is a Muslim. That abuse results in an assault on her by a gang of boys, who know not only that she is a Muslim, but that she is white and has converted, which makes the situation worse. In normal circumstances, that man would get off scot-free. Such religious abuse is an insult to people who live in London.
I agree with the hon. Lady that such behaviour is utterly unacceptable. The people
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responsible should be arrested by the police and charged under existing legislation, which they most certainly could be. I am sad to say that in some parts of the country the police do not provide the service that we used to experience, which is another matter. However, I am convinced that the law already exists to deal with that situation and that we do not need this Bill.
"We are trying to stop groups of people who are prepared verbally, communicating through writing or the internet, to incite others to hate because of someone's faith."[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c.1056.]
He was pressed to provide specific examples, but, like the Home Secretary today, he could not do so. If we are legislating to restrict, or possibly restrict, freedom of speech, we should certainly know why we are doing so and the mischief that we are trying to prevent.
Thirdly, like the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, I am concerned about unintended consequences. He cited a couple of possible unintended consequences of the Bill, and I shall provide another. Extremists exist on the fringes of a number of different religions in this country. They do not come from particular faith groups, and I am sad to say that Christian fundamentalist extremists are present in this country today. Many of my constituents were offended by the BBC programme, "Jerry Springer the Opera"it offended me, too, but that is my personal problembut some of the activity by Christian extremists against that programme was reprehensible. It was outrageous to give out the home telephone number of the programme's producer and encourage people to ring it at all hours of day and night, which was not a Christian response to the issue.
If we are not careful, one faith group will see another faith group becoming militant, and it will up the ante. If we are not careful, arguments that are currently confined to our pulpits, our streets and our debating chambers will be taken on to the barricades and into the courtrooms, which will ratchet up the whole process. If one faith group uses the Bill to put pressure on the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General to prosecute in a certain case, we know that retaliation will follow. Before we know it, we will have holy wars in this country's courtrooms, which will be unedifying. The Bill will not reduce racial and religious tension or increase toleranceit will do the opposite. If an organisation such as Justice can see that point, the Government should, too.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): My constituency is in Birmingham, which is a city with a large number of faiths. In Birmingham, we have a faith leaders group, which discussed the matter earlier today. The faith leaders group includes bishops of various faiths, leading imams and others. It represents the Anglicans, the Catholics, the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Jews, and it feels that something must be done to address the issue. Will the hon. Gentleman accept the need for change in principle, while accepting that the drafting is a mess?
Legislation is sometimes important, because it can send a signal and drive a stake in the ground, and I am glad that we have legislated on some
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of the racial issues that we have faced in this country in the past 30 years. However, this is a matter for dialogue, education and relationships, and we must all be much more responsible and active in pursuing those objectives. Even if the Bill is amended, it will not do the job.
Fourthly, another unintended consequence will be disappointment in some faith communities, which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North mentioned. I have had many meetings with Iqbal Sacranie, the former chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain, whom I deeply respect and who is a man of the utmost integrity. On the BBC Radio 4 programme, "The Moral Maze", on 14 July last year, however, he said that he envisaged that under the new law any "insult" or "outrageous comments" about Islam or the Muslim community, would be illegal, as would any defamation of the character of the Prophet Mohammed, which would be
That is simply not the case. If a man of such standing in the Muslim community so misunderstood what the Bill is about only nine months ago, when the Government had already brought it to the House on two occasions, I fear that this law will disappoint people. That will lead to further outrage, protest and reaction, and not to more tolerance but to greater intolerance, protest, and racial, religious and inner-city tensionsthe last thing that we need.
For 12 very enjoyable months in my first Parliament, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell. I saw that he was a man of the utmost integrity, as were the Law Officers, who are men and women who perform a sterling service to the Government. However, even in those daysMembers have asked whether there have been changes, but I will not comment on that nowI saw that Law Officers could come under political pressure. I am deeply concerned if our last resortthe greatest safety check in the Billis that the Attorney-General will ultimately decide whether to prosecute. Intolerable political pressure could be applied to that office, particularly in the run-up to a general election. That might have two results: first, the integrity and reputation of that office could be damaged further, which we do not want to happen, as we have had enough of that in the past 12 months, and Law Officers are very important people who perform a great service to the Government and to the country; and secondly, poor decisions might be taken for political reasons.
I do not believe that the Bill is the safety valve that the Government claim it to be. It is a very bad Bill that puts Law Officers under intolerable pressure. I hope that the Government will listen carefully to the many points that have been made by Members on both sides of the Chamber tonight and that they will withdraw it.
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