Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I am a bit surprised by the uniform opposition to the Bill from the Conservative Benches, because during the recent election campaign one of their parliamentary candidates was deselected for having made anti-Catholic comments. There is obviously a procedure to deal with people in the Conservative party who make anti-religious comments, yet the Conservatives do not want to extend it to the rest of the country.
I am proud of the Bill on racial harassment that I introduced in the 1980s, important aspects of which became law. I support this Bill, too. It moves towards giving the members of all faiths equal protection under the law from incitement to hatred.
Incitement to hatred can be incredibly dangerous. At its worst, it motivates killings such as those in Nazi Germany. It burns my soul when I see, or recall, war documentaries showing Nazi leaders spitting out hatred of "der Juden" as being to blame for all the ills of the world. That set up the conditions for the Holocaust. In more recent times, incitement to hatred has been instrumental in killings in
21 Jun 2005 : Column 741
the Balkans and Rwandatribal in the latter. However, there was a religious aspect to the murders in the Balkansthe Muslim communities, in particular, were deemed to have fewer rights, to be less than human, and thus to be disposed of more easily.
There was clearly an element of religious hatred behind the recent despicable desecration of the Jewish cemetery in West Ham. In the UK, however, incitement to hatred mostly applies in racial assaults. Some of the culprits, although they would not fall foul of any present or proposed law, are national newspapers that repeatedly refer to asylum seekers so unsympathetically and negatively that the words are turned into a term of abuse. As a result, the number of racist incidents in England and Walesfrom verbal abuse to vicious assaultshas risen in recent years from 48,000 in 2000 to 52,700 in 2004. Those figures include some despicable murders. We have reached the point where Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said in March:
In the face of that, the present law against racial violence and hatred needs to be implemented more effectively. No one in their right mind would say that the law is not necessary; clearly, it is. There is a religious hatred element to the violence, and there is certainly huge potential to spread hatred based on religion against Muslims especially, but also against Jews and people of other faiths.
There is an institutional aspect to Islamophobia because it can arise from fear generated by the war on terror, which some deliberately misinterpret as a war on Muslims. The violence inflicted on innocent Muslim citizens on the streets and in neighbourhoods is the ugly personal face of Islamophobia. Hatred is propagated by the British National party, those associated with it and others with similar ugly attitudes. They want incitement to hatred to be converted into violence against Muslims or Jews.
There is currently a loophole in our law because although racial hatred is covered by it, religious hatred is not. Jews and Sikhs are covered by existing laws on the incitement to racial hatred because the courts deemed that they had a distinct ethnic origin, but Christians, Muslims and Hindus are not covered by the current interpretation of the law. The Bill will end that anomaly. Labour made it clear that it would enact the Bill in its recent election manifesto, which said:
The hon. Gentleman is making important points and I do not disagree with his intentions. However, will he consider this? In the BNP's literature, some of its members amazingly appear to worship Thor and Wotan and the white supremacist god. If I were a member of the BNP and the Bill was passed, I would put myself into a religious sect on that basis and say that those who criticised my white supremacist views were attacking my religious outlook, and thus claim the
21 Jun 2005 : Column 742
protection of the Bill. No aspect of the Bill would prevent that from happening, except of course the intervention of the Attorney-General.
Harry Cohen: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the Secretary of State made it clear that the wording of the Bill would be examined in Committee, which I would welcome if it strengthened the Bill. However, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and other Opposition Members made a key mistake because the Bill will, hopefully, deal with incitement to violence, so violence will be discouraged, but not talk about other religions.
Mr. Khan: Does my hon. Friend agree that mischievous examples such as that given by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) are the same as those put forward two years ago when laws were brought in to protect employees who were suffering religious discrimination in the workplace? There has been no example over the past two years of an employee pretending to be involved in a religious sect, or inventing one, to get the protection of that legislation.
Harry Cohen: My hon. Friend makes his point well. He made a good point earlier about the way in which the BNP tries to find every loophole that it can exploit. It tried to do the same thing with trade unions, after which another loophole had to be closed.
Mr. Baron: Does it not worry the hon. Gentleman that the Government have not been able to come forward with one concrete example of a violent act or incitement that is not already covered by existing laws? We have laws in this country covering intimidation, discrimination and incitement to violence. The Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 introduced the concept of religiously aggravated offences. Surely he accepts that those laws cover the examples that have been cited so far.
Harry Cohen: No, because as I and other hon. Members have said, there is a loophole that must be filled. I understood that clear examples were cited to the House of Lords Committee that considered the matter. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Ms Thornberry) also gave us a clear example. Many of our constituents, especially those from Muslim backgrounds, could give examples of the abuse that they or others have suffered due to their religion.Laws against inciting racial hatred have been on the statute book for almost 20 years. During that time only 72 people have been prosecuted for that offence. I think that there is a case for more people being prosecuted. Such a possibility has an important deterrent effect. As my hon. Friend the Minister has written:
"The courts would have to remember their obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights, so that free speech and freedom of religion are preserved. But where there are court cases, they will send a powerful message about the kind of valuestolerance, justice and equalitythat we hold dear in the UK."
Opponents of the Bill claim dire consequences, but that is not the position with the existing anti-hatred law. The myths that the opponents of the measure have put
21 Jun 2005 : Column 743
out deserve to be put in their place. The Bill will not criminalise someone criticising the beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion or its followers. It will not criminalise someone urging followers of a different religion to cease practising their religion and perhaps to convert. It will not criminalise someone telling jokes about religion. It will not criminalise someone expressing antipathy or a dislike of a particular religion. Furthermore, there is the powerful safeguard that before any prosecution could go ahead it would have to be personally approved by the Attorney-General.
Discussions between religions and about religions must be conducted with at least a degree of tolerance, not a will to target for violence those of a different faith. For the first time inflammatory statements would be coveredfor example, where they are made at an extremist rally where the intention is clearly to incite hatred against people not present at the rally because they are of a different religion. Killings and assaults have happened following such incitement. Those actions must be warned off by the law.
Many recent laws, including those introduced before the Labour Government took office, have targeted personal behaviour that is antisocial or damaging to the safety of others. In that context, arguing not to extend that principle to protect people of different faiths from hatred-inducing violence seems to rest on very thin ice intellectually.
I think that Muslims will be significant beneficiaries of the proposed legislation, but so will people from other religions. Christians will be winners. They fall through the current loophole and the Bill will provide them with explicit protection. Furthermore, in circumstances that suit them, it is not beyond BNP supporters to pick on small black Christian churches, mainly because they are black, but using the language of religious detestation.