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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I call Mr. Sadiq Khan.

8.25 pm

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for asking me to follow that. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of a Bill that I referred to in my maiden speech almost a month ago. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) and for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on making their maiden speeches this evening. My contribution to this debate falls into two sections. First, why is there a need for this legislation? Secondly, I want to deal with some of the concerns raised by Members of this Chamber and by others outside it.

Our country has a good track record of positive relations between different races, cultures and religions stretching back hundreds of years. Prophesies made by former Members of this House about race riots leading to rivers of blood have proved to be grossly false and nothing more than scaremongering. However, life in the UK for some is far from utopian. Pockets of our community are suffering and parts of it are less equal than others. There are some in our community—thankfully, a small minority—who exploit circumstances to incite hatred against the most vulnerable, knowing that they will get away with it.

It was a Labour Government, in the face of huge opposition, who first introduced race relations legislation in this country in 1968. A Conservative Government
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introduced the Public Order Act 1986, which contains the current law outlawing incitement to racial hatred. Parliamentarians, academics and commentators—I am afraid that I found no examples of comedians—all bemoaned and criticised the need for those new laws. It was said that they would stifle robust debate and destroy the centuries-old tradition of freedom of speech, and that it was political correctness gone mad.

No one today is seriously suggesting that inciting hatred against blacks is acceptable—of course it should be against the law. The courts were right to interpret those laws to give protection to the followers of mono-ethnic faiths such as Judaism and Sikhism. Those laws, which were so contentious, have made a real difference to the lives of black and ethnic-minority people in Britain. They did not just stop the abuse; they made us feel full citizens of this, our country.

This Bill is about trying to close a loophole that far-right groups are well aware of, and outlawing incitement against the followers—the followers—of multi-ethnic faiths. In the last few years, the far right have cynically and deliberately been targeting British Muslims. "Freedom", the British National party magazine, has explained the loophole to its readers. An article under the headline, "Police drop a clanger" said that a supporter who repeatedly displayed a copy of an "Islam out of Britain" poster in his window was arrested, questioned and charged with "incitement to racial hatred". The article continues:

Incidentally, that person sued the police for wrongful arrest. Far right groups no longer—thank God!—have posters saying, "Blacks out of Britain" or "Jews out of Britain". Why? Because they know that they would be committing a criminal offence. They know that creating such an atmosphere by inciting hatred is unlawful. However, they have no such qualms in respect of Muslims.

Vulnerable communities who are at the receiving end of the violence that religious and racial hatred can lead to have no problems with hate language being censored, or with the environment in which such harassment or violence takes place being challenged. Let us be clear that we are not talking about gagging comedians—the jokes and gags can go on. We are talking about hatred creating an atmosphere in which Muslim women—British women, some of them white—wearing a hijab or scarf are spat at, insulted, sworn at and even hit.

Dr. Evan Harris rose—

Mr. Khan: It is not about race, as many of these women are white converts. One third of British Muslims are not of Asian heritage. Young children with Muslim names are bullied and picked on as a result of the atmosphere that hatred breeds. Clearly, those children have not made a decision about their religion; like many of us, they have been brought up in it, so why are they not protected?

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

Mr. Khan: No, I am sorry.
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The idea that one cannot choose one's race but can choose one's religion so that the former but not the latter should get protection is absurd. Some people talk about religion as a lifestyle choice, but what is being suggested—that Britain's 1.6 million Muslims should convert to Christianity or become atheists? We have a duty to protect our most vulnerable communities.

As I understand it, there are four main objections to the Bill. First, it is argued that there is no need for new law because the existing laws are sufficient. That is simply not the case. The amendment that the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have produced—the "dream team" amendment—demonstrates that neither of the main Opposition parties have any solutions to these problems. If it were possible to identify religious hatred as linked to racial hatred, there would be no need for the proposed law. That is why the so-called Lester amendment is inadequate.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman used some illustrations of horrible behaviour to Muslims, and I think that he would concede that they are all already criminal offences. What he is trying to achieve through the Bill is a change in people's mindset. Will he explain how or why that will come about and will he also deal with the undoubted fettering of freedom of speech that will result from what is, in fact, a draconian piece of legislation?

Mr. Khan: I shall deal with the last point later. On his first point, the examples that I provided are not covered. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that there should be only one criminal law to deal with every criminal act that is committed? The reality is that if he were arrested for murder, he could be charged with any of four criminal offences.

I am going to continue. The whole point is to protect a group of people who do not fall under a single racial identity. That is why so many senior police officers, including the recently retired Metropolitan Police Commissioner, believe that current legislation is inadequate and support the new offence.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) advanced the second objection—that the Bill will restrict freedom of speech. The idea that we have complete and unrestricted freedom of speech is nonsense. Article 10 of the European convention on human rights—the article that deals with free speech—also talks about the "rights and responsibilities" that go with free speech in civil society. Free speech has a number of restrictions to ensure the smooth running of society. Examples where such restrictions apply include pornography, intellectual property, race hatred, defamation and national security issues. If Voltaire were inciting hatred on grounds of race, I would not fight to the death to defend his right to say that.

The fact that the new offence will not be in breach of our article 10 obligations is confirmed by the support for the proposals of such groups as the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Law Society, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, Justice—the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) was wrong to say that Justice opposes the Bill; it supports it—and the UN Human Rights Committee.
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In fact, what many international human rights organisations say is that by failing to protect our most vulnerable citizens, we are in breach of our obligations as a State.

The third objection is that this is a sop to the Muslim community, giving them preferential treatment because of the Iraq war. I heard a new one today; apparently, it is blasphemy law for Islam by the back door. Well, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) said earlier, the first time the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) tried to introduce this legislation was in winter 2001—more than a year before the war with Iraq—so I am afraid that the chronology of those who make that point is simply wrong. If British Muslims really were as powerful and influential as the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) suggests, one would have thought that they could have persuaded the Government not to fight the Iraq war in the first place.

Not only the Government and Labour Members believe in equality before the law for all of our communities. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Church of England, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the Hindu Council UK, the network of Sikh organisations, the CRE and other organisations all support the Bill. They are hardly a bunch of Muslim fundamentalists looking for preferential treatment or special favours, or seeking a new blasphemy law for Muslims by the back door.

The fourth point that has been made is that the Bill will lead to unemployment—of comedians, artists and theologians—and possibly to their prosecution. That is just humbug. The new law will not stop anyone offending, criticising, ridiculing or taking the p*** out of faiths. Police vans will not wait outside comedy clubs, and censors will not go through everything that is said, written or done. Nobody wants to stop our irreverent sense of humour flourishing. The bigots are the only ones who have anything to fear from the Bill.

The Bill is about protecting people from hatred, and not about protecting faiths from criticism. That goal is entirely in keeping with Britain's unique record of religious and racial tolerance. A society should be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members. A loophole that allows religious hatred to be propagated must finally be closed. This Bill closes that loophole, and I urge the House to support it.

8.36 pm

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