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My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Ms Thornberry) was not making the point that the girl was insulted because she
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was wearing a veil. She was insulted because she was a Muslim and the veil identified her as a Muslim. In addition, the Public Order Acts, unlike the Bill, would not treat the matter as aggravated behaviour. [Interruption.]
Mr. Leigh: Other hon. Members say that they would. We could have a legal argument about the matter. The vital, central point has been made that, when a Government introduce a Bill of such importance, the Home Secretary, Government Back Benchers and the person who makes the winding-up speech cite a series of statutes that do not deal with the problem, yet not a single example has been given.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): The hon. Gentleman should know about the extensive evidence that the Association of Chief Police Officers provided to the House of Lords Select Committee on religious offences. It gave shocking individual examples. He may not know that, in my constituency, a letter was circulated that suggested that a specific religion chose to abuse sexually young women to recruit them. It was clearly designed to stir up religious hatred between two religiously separated gangs. It succeeded to such an extent that one young man had his arm cut off.
"if he displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused embarrassment, alarm or distress".
Mr. Leigh: It would have been helpful if the Home Secretary, instead of taking refuge in saying that he was not prepared to discuss actual cases, had given generic examples. We have had only one example, for which I am grateful. We got the Under-Secretary to give an example, to which we immediately received a response, showing that it was caught by public order legislation. We must do better. The case to which the Under-Secretary alluded was so extreme that I cannot believe that existing legislation would not cover it.
Fiona Mactaggart: The police were aware of the legislation. The case was not covered by it because it was claimed that the practice was associated with the religion. People claimed that a specific religion recruited through sexual activity. The other three examples that I cited were considered by the House of Lords Select Committee. Any hon. Member can read them.
Perceptions are important. Our society, which is uniquely liberal, has been built up over 400 or 500 years of vigorous religious disputation. That disputation, which is healthy and often couched in strong language, defends liberty and democracy. If we repress that, we will build up resentment and perhaps make matters much worse. The Australian case of Pastor Scot has been mentioned. I was interested by the Home Secretary's defence. He said that it would not happen here because the Bill is more tightly drafted. However, the pastor in Australia was prosecuted under the religious hatred provisions in Australian law, which are similar to the Bill's. If Pastor Scot were to engage in those activities in this country once the Bill had become law, there is a real chance that a complaint would be made to the Attorney-General, at the very least.
The Home Secretary used the great defence that the Attorney-General will have to make the final decision. However, enormous pressure will be put on the Attorney-General, particularly in the heightened political atmosphere leading up to a general election. That point was made in the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who is a convinced atheistperhaps a member of the National Secular Society; I do not know. He made a powerful point.
We should listen to the argument that the Bill could make things a lot worse, rather than better. Perceptions are important. Do we want to live in a society in which people feel frightened to express strong views? I understand that there are evil people of bad intent who will use religious disputation to cover an act of racial hatred. Surely, however, the answer to that is that they will be caught by the Lester amendment, so why cannot we in this House unite around that amendment? After all, we all abhor people who behave in that way, and we all say that we do not want to limit strong religious discussion, so what is the harm in the Lester amendment?
Dr. Evan Harris: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I have found the reference in the evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on religious offences to which the Under-Secretary referred. A letter on page 43 of volume 2 from Detective Chief Inspector David Tucker lists documents including National Front leaflets calling for "No Mosques, No Muslims". Such leaflets, even if they were not already caught by the public order legislation that was used in that case, would be caught by the extension of the law on racial hatred to cover race hate going under the proxy of religious words. That is why even the examples that the Minister cited would be covered by the Lester amendment, as they rightly should be.
I am very grateful to my friend for his intervention, and I hope that it will attract a comment from the Minister later. It is important that we get this right, because we are dealing with such a precious commodity. This is not some little Bill dealing with planning issues in the south-east[Interruption]important though they are, of course. The Bill deals with a matter that is fundamental to what this House is supposed to be about, yet we are still surrounded by a
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fog of ignorance as to how many prosecutions there might be, the effect that they might have on society, and whether they would limit the kind of debate that we all welcome. I cannot believe that those who are promoting the Billparticularly the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who is a very fine manwould intentionally do anything to limit vigorous discussion. We need answers to these points when the Minister winds up the debate.
I promised that I would read the following extract, which is very strong. If I went out and spoke in such terms and someone in the audience then committed some act against another religion, would I be caught by the Bill?
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will know, that is from the gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 23, verses 27, 28 and 33. Would Christ have been prosecuted under this Bill in the first century AD for stirring up religious hatred?
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) may live to regret his earlier remark about trivial planning matters in the south-east. It reminded me of Mrs. Thatcher's alleged remark about the environment being a rather boring issue.
This has been an extremely good, genuine debate in which Members have not simply been reading from a script. However, it has been striking that, while different views have been expressed on this side of the HouseI shall express some more in a momentthere has been a uniformity of view on the Opposition Benches. I should have liked to hear a greater variety of views from over there. That uniformity might in part reflect the fact that the Conservative party, in its attenuated condition, has come to speak only for comfortable England. It should not be smug about this, because we have also heard some powerful voices today who speak for uncomfortable England. Those voices also need to be attended to; if they are not, there will be consequences with which we shall not feel happy.
I speak as someone who has reservations about these proposals. At the heart of the problem is the questionto which we keep returning from a number of anglesof how we can protect believers who may be under attack without damaging the ability to attack belief itself. How do we protect believers while maintaining the right to attack belief? That is the liberal dilemma with which we
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are wrestling. What we are debating is important; this is a genuine dilemma. I suspect that many of us here want to remedy a wrong, and to extend protection to those who say that they need it because of how things are now. Part of the liberal tradition wants always to protect minorities that need protection. Another part, however, says that we want always to guarantee the maximum ability of people to say what they want to say about anything. Indeed, our history over several centuries has been about establishing the integrity of that tradition. However, some of the exchanges that have taken place today might lead us to believe that the past 300 years never took place.
I understand what people say about asserting the fact that religious belief is integral to identity, and that it is the same as belonging to a racial group, but that is precisely what we have emancipated ourselves from. It was precisely the belief that religious identity was the definition of identity that enabled us to slaughter each other quite merrily for a long time. We have now managed to liberate ourselves from that view of the human condition, and it is important that we hang on to the knowledge of what the liberal tradition is all about in this respectnamely, that belief systems of all kinds have fundamentally to be matters of choice. Some people might come to regard them as matters of identity, but the point is that, in our tradition and society, with our history, we have made them matters of choice. That is what our liberal society is about. If we are now saying that we want to depart from that, I suggest that we shall cross a line that, on reflection, we would not want knowingly to cross.
I hate bigotry. I hate religious bigotry. All decent people should hate bigotry. I would like to incite people to hate bigotry, and I am worried about provisions that say that I cannot go round inciting people in that way. That incitementwhich, as we have heard, involves loathing and intense dislikeis integral to our tradition.
We constantly return to a central dilemma. The beliefs and the believers are rolled together. I want to do all that I can to protect believers who feel that they are inadequately protected at present, but I need to be shown how I can do that without encroaching on the tradition that enables me to attack beliefs, and to attack them in the most vigorous and robust way possible.
I do not think that the Bill in its current form does that. I think that it is inattentive to the distinction that I have described. I think that the Government must do more work. I did not manage to vote for the Bill on its earlier outings. I would love to be able to vote for the half that represents the liberal tradition, but I can do so only if the Government ensure that the other part of that tradition is included as well. It could be done quite simply, perhaps by means of the Lester amendment. What I want is an absolute commitment that nothing in the Bill will prevent people from attacking bodies of belief in the most robust way possible. Without it, I shall not be able to support the Bill, because it will appear that we have not got the balance right.
I was greatly encouraged by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's assurance that he would consider amendments to get the balance right. My experience of him suggests that that is his general approach to legislation, and if he does what he has said he will do, it is in our power to produce a Bill that would secure assent
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throughout the House. That would be a considerable prize, and would go a long way towards achieving what we want to achieve.
Our present difficulty is that when the Government are asked what effect the Bill will have, we hear more in the way of symbolic reassurance than we hear about its practical consequences. That is not usually a good basis for law. It is the "something must be done" syndrome. Something must be done because people feel oppressed, but what we must do is something sensible. I do not think that saying repeatedly, when pressed, that the law will never respond to certain situations is sensible.
I want to vote for a law that will apply to situations of the kind that we may discussa law that will provide protections that do not currently exist, but will not damage the liberal tradition in the process. That is the challenge for the Government, but it is the challenge for all of us as the Bill proceeds through its stages. The prize will be the securing of legislation that will command the support that would genuinely reassure the people whom we want to protect.
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