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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD):
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) made at least two very important points in his powerful speech. He said that we need to recognise that there are issues in society that must be dealt with. He also said that some communities rightly feel under pressure and that something has to be done to help them. Neither I nor my Liberal Democrat colleagues believe that the choice is between this Bill and doing nothing. We recognise that it must be made absolutely clear that the people described by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) as racists and members of the extreme right cannot hide behind religious words, language and descriptions to escape prosecution under the race hate laws. I wanted to make that point during the hon. Gentleman's speech, but he would not allow me to intervene.
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Liberal Democrat Members believeas do Conservative Members and, as the outcome of many votes show, a lot of Labour Membersthat the best way to make matters completely clear is to extend existing laws against incitement to racial hatred. That would cover the activities of the extreme right and the BNP when they use religious words as a proxy for inciting racial hatred. Nothing that those people do is theological. They are not making theological points when they attack Muslims or Hindus: they are making thinly veiled racist points. If such actions are not covered by the existing legislation, extending that legislation in statute will make matters clear.
It is also important to recognise that incitement to violence is already an offence, as are direct assaults and vandalism, and that all those offences can be religiously exacerbated. Moreover, direct insults, abuse and threats are already criminal offences under the public order or harassment legislation. No law change is needed to cover that behaviour, but three hon. Members who support the Government have said that such a change must be implemented. The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) spoke about a person being spat on or abused. That is already an offence, and since 2001 it is capable of attracting a steeper sentence if it is considered to be religiously aggravated. That is an example of the type of Aunt Sally that is put up as an argument in favour of changing the law, even though it is not true.
The hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) adopted that approach. He is not in the Chamber, but I see the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Ms Thornberry) sitting on the Cross Benches. She said that people had been vilified for wearing headscarves, but that is already a public order offence, at the very least, and it can be religiously exacerbated.
"Mothers collecting children from school have been abused and assaulted . . . Homes have been stoned and fire-bombed . . . Yet . . . our present laws offer no special protection to Muslims around incitement to these acts."
Indeed, even the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), is liable to fall into that trap. In an interview on the "PM" programme broadcast on 9 June, in response to the presenter saying:
That is true because they do not need to be protected on the basis of their religious belief because they are protected by the fact that incitement to violence and harassment are already criminal offences, some of which can be religiously exacerbated. However, such things are offences even without religion exacerbation. The argument that the Bill is needed to close some loopholes has been overstated to say the least. The argument is not about direct threats, direct insults or violence; they are already illegal.
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Freedom of speech and expression are precious, and the freedom to dispute, even in strong terms, is a necessary part of such freedom. The Bill lacks certainty. That shows the problem of the chilling effect. People may want to self-censor or be censored by those who would otherwise want to hear their arguments, publish their books, print their articles or stage their plays. The Bill lacks clarity, as we have heard, because which religions are covered, what is the threshold for hatred and what is hatred are also not clear and are not definedand, of course, intention is not a requirement.
Again, there are further examples of people's doubts. Indeed, the Minister was asked in the same interview whether someone would be allowed to say, "I hate Muslims", or "We hate Muslims." He first said no. He then said, "Maybe" and that it would be up to the courts, not politicians, to decide. I have the transcript here. The point is that he says that the decision should not be for politicians, but we as politicians making law in Parliament have a duty to provide citizens with certainty. I have never had an answer to the question about whether I can say, when a group of fundamentalist Christians, for example, are vilifying another groupfor example, homosexualsthat we should hate those Christian bigots. Could I say that freely outside the Chamber if this law were in place?
The Minister often makes light of comediansspecifically, Rowan Atkinsonbut those of us who have had an opportunity to hear him speak know that he talks about the freedom for him to make religious jokes. He said:
"The Government claim that one would be allowed to say what you like about beliefs because the measure is not intended to defend beliefs but believers. But I don't see how you can distinguish between them. Beliefs are only invested with life and meaning by believers. If you attack beliefs, you are automatically attacking those who believe the beliefs. You wouldn't need to criticise beliefs if no one believed them."
There may be answers to that point, but I hope that the Minister will recognise that the points made by the creative community are relevant and need to be tackled, without simply being dismissed as coming from those in the entertainment industry.
I believe that the Bill has massively raised expectations among those in the Muslim community, many of whom think that it will provide them with a blasphemy law or that it covers incitement to violence, which they believe is not currently covered. Even some hon. Members tend to have those views. As is well known, during the debate on the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) asked whether "The Satanic Verses" would be covered, and said that at that time that
"I am sorry, but I take issue with that. It was not a question of making a valid criticism of the religion. In the context of Salman Rushdie, the issue was the abusive words that he deliberately used, which were written in phonetic Urdu, criticising . . . "
"the 'incitement to religious hatred clause' would not, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr implied, give carte blanche to anyone who wanted to prosecute Salman Rushdie".[Official Report, 7 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 121623.]
The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who is not in the Chamber, gave a hypothetical example to show that Muslims would not be protected by the current race hate laws against someone saying, "Muslims out" or "No Muslims wanted here". Many experts doubt that claim; indeed, a member of the British National party was arrested recently under the race hate laws. However, even if the situation described by the right hon. Gentleman was not covered at present, the Lester amendment would certainly deal with it. That would also apply to his other examples, where some Semites were protected while others were not. It can be made clear that people who are actually attacked racially but on the notional basis of their religion are entitled to protectionthey would be covered by the amendment's extension to the law. The BNP is not making a theological point, but a racist one.
If the Government want to reassure people such as me and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who wanted an assurance that free speech would be protected, and if they want to end discrimination against some religions in favour of others, why on earth do they not use the Bill to repeal the blasphemy laws? They are discriminatory and have a chilling effect on free speech. Everyone knows where the Church of England stands; it gave evidence to the Select Committee on Religious Offences. It is time to repeal those laws and the Government's failure to do so makes many of us doubt their motives and whether they really care about free speech.
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