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Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): My constituency is one of the most ethnically diverse of any represented in this House outside London. In the last census in 2001, more than 40 per cent. of its population described themselves as other than white British, and the proportion is probably somewhat higher today. In giving that description, they used many different criteria, the two most notable being race and religion.
It is not only in the census that the two criteria of race and religion are used as indicators of how people identify themselves. For them, when it comes to race it is not a matter of choice, and, contrary to what has been said several times during this debate, neither is it a matter of choice when they identify themselves by religion. For many of those in that 40 per cent. in my constituency, their religion is as fundamental a part of their culture, family and tradition as their racein many cases, more fundamental. Of course, it is also on the basis of race and religion that many of those who seek to promote division, discord and hate categorise people in my constituency and in others.
Today, Leicester is very fortunate. Relations between the various ethnic and religious groups tend to be very good, and are very different from how they were in Leicester and in many other places some 30 years ago, and still are today in many places. That is partly because the people of the city have been very sensible in the way they have worked together to understand and get to know each other. It is also because of the general legislative framework whereby promotion of racial hatred is against the law and clearly unacceptable. The legislation forbidding the promotion of racial hatred has not required many prosecutions, but it has provided a legal framework and enabled a culture in which the promotion of racial hatred is totally unacceptable. Of course, it is not only on the basis of matters of race that those who seek to promote hatred categorise othersit is also, sadly, by religion.
The four in 10 in my constituency may have some degree of protection if they are threatened by racial hatred, but it is different if that hatred is promoted purely on the basis of their religion. As other hon. Members have said, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), there are two exceptions. If hatred is stirred against the one in 20 of my constituents who are Sikh, they will protected, because Sikhism is covered by racial hatred legislation. Similarly, if the one in 100 of my constituents who are Jewish find that hatred is being promoted against them, they too will find some protection because they happen to have an identification that is beyond racial and includes a religious identification. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, the extension of the law preventing racial hatred has enabled them to get some degree of additional protection. Unlike my hon. Friend, however, I do not feel that that should be regretted as an extension of the existing legislationrather, that it should be extended to include other religious minorities.
Mr. Allen: What I actually said was that I was pleased about the extension to cover Jewish and Sikh people but that it had not been in the original legislation, and therefore as we pass legislation tonight there may be other unintended consequences as a result of case law being built on it.
Sir Peter Soulsby: I entirely accept that that was my hon. Friend's point and that he was welcoming the extension; my argument is that it should be extended to other religious minorities, which is the purpose of the Bill.
Dr. Evan Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that case law in cases regarding Sikhs and Jews recognises that the existing laws on incitement to racial hatred protected those groups because they are races as well as religions? Is he not making a good argument for extending the race hate laws to cover religions when the motive is racial hatred, which is what the so-called Lester amendment does?
Sir Peter Soulsby: No; my point was that a significant proportion of my constituents and others identify themselves primarily by their religion, and that that identification that they have of themselves and that others have of them should be protected.
Mr. Hendrick : My hon. Friend makes a strong point, because race and religion are essential in terms of how people see their own personal identity. It is a shame that Opposition Members see religion almost as a lifestyle choice, not as something that is innate in somebody's identity.
Sir Peter Soulsby: The fact is that the law preventing the promotion of hatred on the grounds of race deserves to be extended to those who suffer from the promotion of hatred on the grounds of their religion. Members of certain religions are not protected when, as they increasingly perceive to be the case, extremists promote hatred of them and of their friends, families and communities on the grounds of their religion. The Bill is not about giving special treatment to particular religionsit clearly applies to all, and has indeed been extended to apply to those who have no religion. Nor is it about stifling criticism of other faiths, or, indeed, mocking them or making judgments about them. It is about giving the same protection to those who have hatred stirred up against them because of their religion as is already given to those who have hatred stirred them because of their race.
In recent years, especially since the events of September 2001 but also before that, ordinary, law-abiding, peaceful and productive citizens, who happened to be Muslim, have, with their families, felt themselves targeted and demonised. Of course, we are considering Muslims, but it could be members of other religions, for example, Hindus, in future.
Sir Peter Soulsby:
That was precisely my point about the way in which the law has been extended, is capable
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of being extended to prevent attacks on Jews and Sikhs and should be extended to prevent such attacks on Muslims and members of other religions in future.
The Bill will not prevent anybody from being criticised or joked about. However, it makes a clear statement. It will provide a legal framework and help ensure that incitement to religious hatred is as unacceptable in Britain as is incitement to racial hatred.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Earlier, I spoke to someone from the Christian Institute. Hon. Members will not be surprised by that, but I also spoke to a representative of the National Secular Society. I had an interesting conversation with them and the sincerity of both was transparent. Although they disagreed about everything else, those two gentlemen were profoundly worried about the Bill. Their professions are based on vigorous debate, yet they were worried because the measure is different from legislation on race.
It is comparatively easy to define race hatred. As has been said, there have been few prosecutions under that measure. That is not surprisingit has served its purpose. However, religions grow over hundreds of years on layer upon layer of prescription, faith and often strong statements. Therefore when we deal with a possible prosecution on the ground of an allegation of religious hatred, it is far more difficult to define and prove. The scope of the Bill is potentially far wider than legislation on race hatred.
All hon. Members are united in the view that we should bear down heavily on people who try to incite racial hatred. However, there is a strong division of opinion about the way in which we deal with people who have extremely strong religious views. In a moment, I shall refer to strong and violent statements in the Christian Holy Book. Before I sit down, I shall quote them. Some might take the view that those statements, however honest their proclamation, could lead, whatever the intention of the person making them, to an act of religious hatred. We are therefore in a difficult position.
I am trying to understand the Government's position. The trouble with such debates is that one often gets the impression that neither side is listening to the other. However, the intervention of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Ms Thornberry), who has unfortunately left, was interesting. She cited the case of a young girl who was wearing a veil and was insulted on the bus. She said that the case could not be prosecuted under existing legislation because the girl was white and the person insulting her was doing so not because of the colour of her skin but because she was wearing a veil. I am grateful for a private conversation with my close friend the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on that. He pointed out that that person would have been caught under public order legislation. Thus many examples of harassment, violence and abuse, which those who support the Bill cite, are covered by existing legislation, which is widely drawn.
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