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Mr. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman explain why that example would not be covered by the Lester amendment, which explicitly addresses such an issue? Does he really think that the BNP's hatred is based on a criticism of theology or on the association of religions with ethnic groups?

Harry Cohen: I acknowledge that that would be covered by the Lester amendment, but that amendment is weaker overall than the provisions in the Bill. There should not be a proxy for racism. Religious hatred needs to be dealt with in its own right.

Members of all faiths should have equal protection under the law. That is what the Government avow they are working towards with the Bill. I believe that they should go further towards achieving that by removing the mediaeval and discriminatory blasphemy laws—which, in any event, are not used these days—from the statute book. Notwithstanding that, the Bill has merits in its own right and I fully support it. I believe that UK residents of all religions and of none will be safer when the Bill is on the statute book.

8.59 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): First, I commend the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) on his heartfelt address. However, I disagreed
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with almost every word of it, because this is a bad and dangerous piece of legislation, which has the scope to limit and undermine our freedom of expression. It will create greater tensions in our communities, and it will be counter-productive.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the Bill is born of the Government's misconception about race and religion in relation to freedom of speech. We have discussed that at length but, surprisingly, some Government Members do not understand that religion is fundamentally a matter of choice, and should not be included in legislation relating to race, which is a matter of birth. In a liberal democracy, it is clearly outrageous to criticise or hate someone on account of something over which they do not have any control or choice such as race. The Bill, however, raises the prospect that argument and disagreement over religion, about which people do have a choice, may be regarded as inciting religious hatred. That is nonsense, and it is clearly wrong.

The Government claim that the Bill is not intended to criminalise religious debate. However, given its poor wording, there can be no guarantee about that. Religious hatred is not properly defined, so a great deal of interpretation will be subjective. For example, the new offence does not include a definition of religion, so if a journalist writes an article in which he claims that Satanists are an evil cult, the Satanists can report him to the police, claiming that he is inciting religious hatred against them. Given that the Government have not been able to produce a single clear instance of the way in which the Bill would apply, there is no reason to suggest that my example would not be caught by the Bill. After all, it is intuitive to hate that which is considered evil.

I am particularly concerned about the new test for both racial and religious incitement, as discussed in the explanatory notes to the Bill. I pressed the Home Secretary on that issue, because it is of fundamental importance, and I should be grateful for a response during the winding-up speeches. The explanatory notes say that for material likely to stir up racial or religious hatred

The Bill appears to suggest that the accused is responsible for the unintended and unforeseen reactions to their comments by people who could be bigoted and hate-filled. That is dangerous ground. In principle, the Bill could privilege the interpretations of the most ignorant people in our society at the expense of the meaning intended by the accused. That is wrong, and it will limit free speech. Furthermore, the legislation will create a fear of prosecution, as individuals must consider whether their remarks could be misconstrued by others. Such self-censorship will further erode our culture of freedom.

Chris Bryant: That is a very good thing.

Mr. Baron: Does the hon. Gentleman wish to make an intervention? Apparently not.

The Government are trying to calm fears by saying that there will be few prosecutions and that the Attorney-General will have a veto on cases that are brought. In a free society, it is wholly unacceptable to
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pass into law something that is intellectually flawed purely in the hope that, as they promised, the Government will not abuse their powers. It is precisely because Governments generally cannot be trusted not to abuse their powers that Parliament exists to protect individual rights and freedoms. That is why we are here, and it is a key part of our job. We should not rely on the Government to take on this particular role, as we would be wandering into uncharted and dangerous waters.

But what makes this legislation even more of a nonsense is that it is not needed. Time and time again, Government Members have given examples of cases that were thought to require the protection offered by the Bill but which, in fact, did not need it. We already have laws prohibiting discrimination, intimidation and incitement to violence. In short, protection already exists for everyone, regardless of their religion.

In 2001 Parliament passed new laws creating religiously aggravated offences, which provide additional safeguards. The aim of these is to introduce tougher penalties where a crime has been committed. Case history has shown that displaying a poster with the words "Islam out of Britain—protect the British public" is already illegal under existing law, so it is questionable what additional protection could be provided by a law against incitement to hatred.

The Government's instinct is always to create new wide-ranging laws, rather than enforcing existing ones. Proper enforcement of our existing laws would make the new offence unnecessary. So why is the Bill being introduced? I wish the hon. Member who made the comment earlier was present. I can only draw the conclusion that this dangerous and unnecessary legislation is being introduced by the Government as a sop to the Muslim community for having misled the country and instigated an illegal war in Iraq. It is posturing of the worst kind, for there can be no doubt that the claims concerning weapons of mass destruction were nothing but a fig leaf to justify a war that should not have been fought. A large part of the Muslim community has lost faith in Labour, and the Government are cynically trying to make amends.

As regards the time scale, I do accept the point that the legislation was introduced shortly after 9/11, but I also contend that the decision to go to war was made in certain select circles soon after 9/11 as well, and it is no co-incidence that the Government promoted the legislation during the election.

Meanwhile, there is a real danger that the Bill will be used by some religious groups to seek to prosecute other religious groups, which could corrode community relations rather than improve them. As the Islamic Human Rights Commission in July last year stated:

In this regard the comments of India's well respected Attorney-General are worth considering. He said:

There is a danger that high-profile prosecutions could give extremists greater publicity. No Member of the House would want that to happen in this country. There is a better way forward than introducing repressive
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laws—that is, to encourage freedom of speech. Moral force is more effective than legal force, and for that we need freedom of speech. By banning certain remarks or gestures, we admit that we are scared of them. Indeed, by adopting such an approach we risk becoming complacent about our own reasons for disagreeing with the people who promote those ideas.

The Bill is the easy but ineffective option. It is a foolish knee-jerk reaction to deep-seated social problems. We do not need tighter or more combative laws in this area, but instead more freedom of speech and expression in order to promote the greater understanding and tolerance needed to defeat the bigotry and hatred that exists in corners of our society. That brings me back to where I started—freedom of speech.

The Bill is bad legislation for a number of reasons. It is vague and ill defined. It allows the state to adjudicate on people's religious beliefs. It is unnecessary in that sufficient protection for individuals or religious groups already exists. It threatens to be divisive and create greater tension between religious communities. Worst of all, the Bill threatens to curtail our freedom of speech, as ordinary religious debate could be criminalised. In my view that represents further salami-slicing of our individual freedoms, which unfortunately has been the hallmark of the Government since they came to power. Attempting to limit the right to trial by jury while introducing control orders are recent examples. The Bill is yet another example.

Freedom of speech is essential for the defence of our core values and for society to move forward, embrace new ideas and challenge the established views. It is Parliament's duty to protect our freedom of speech against an increasingly powerful Executive. Parliament cannot and must not fail in that duty, otherwise we as a society risk progress and our own advancement. I therefore urge the House to vote against the Bill.

9.9 pm

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