Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The debate has been interesting, although I wonder whether the hyperbole advanced by Conservative Members has hindered their making some good points.

The Bill is primarily about rectifying an anomaly that has led to an inequity in the present legal situation, namely that some groups are protected in law and others are not, which is an argument that we have rehearsed this afternoon. In my experience, protection is not afforded to not only Muslims, but many Catholics. Anti-Catholicism is as virulent now in many parts of the country and in some public discourse as it was four centuries ago. Although we have understandably focused on the Islamophobia that we face in this country, the treatment of Catholicism is also an issue, which is not to say that we should therefore protect either the Catholic faith or Islam.

This afternoon, many hon. Members have argued that the best way to defend the God in whom one believes is to argue, and to argue forcibly. In the 1970s, J. B. Phillips wrote a particularly fine book called "Your God is too small", which made it clear how it is sometimes better to argue God's corner rather than protecting him through laws.

A vast pool of religious hatred simmers in this country. Many of us do not face that religious hatred because we worship in a Church that is protected and
21 Jun 2005 : Column 747
perhaps even established by law, and the vast majority of people who face religious hatred on a daily basis are Muslims. The Bill may not be used after it has received Royal Assent. I hope that it will not be used, because by the very virtue of bringing it into law, we will have made a declaration that religious hatred is a problem in modern society and that we want to row back from it. We do not want to pour yet more water into that pool of religious hatred.

It was curious to hear several hon. Members who are prominent in their own faith communities effectively arguing in favour of religious hatred. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—a curious love-in—seem to agree on their mutual religious hatred, one for another.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) said that the Bill will lead to terrible self-censorship. When it comes to religious hatred, however, a little bit of self-censorship is an extremely good idea.

David T.C. Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Bryant: I usually give way, but I know that other Conservative Members want to speak and that only a few more minutes remain.

I do not believe that a new blasphemy law should be introduced. In 1979, Lord Scarman said:

which is a quaint phrase. I wholeheartedly disagree with Lord Scarman. I do not believe that we should introduce a new blasphemy law—we should have the old blasphemy law, a point that I shall address in a moment—and the Bill will not give us a new blasphemy law.

It is perfectly possible to distinguish between beliefs and believers, just as in Christian teaching it has always been possible to hate the sin and the love the sinner, which is why I was gratified to hear the Home Secretary make it clear that, for example, confessions of faith in the Anglican Church, which might seem offensive to others, will not fall foul of the Bill.

Mr. Carmichael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Bryant: Usually, I always give way, but several other hon. Members want to speak and I know that we will reach the winding-up speeches in a few moments.

For instance, the 39 articles, which are, at least theoretically, the main tenets of the Church of England, state:

I suppose that that means that the Minister is being called superstitious by the tenets of the Church of England and that he could in theory take offence, but I
21 Jun 2005 : Column 748
think that he would assert, as the Home Secretary did earlier, that merely to restate the 39 articles would not fall foul of the Bill.

Likewise, the Westminster confession of 1646, which the hon. Member for North Antrim, who is not in his seat, would undoubtedly subscribe to every word of, and could doubtless recite—

Mr. Grieve rose—

Chris Bryant: I will give way, but hesitantly.

Mr. Grieve: I simply have to say to the hon. Gentleman that if calling somebody superstitious could be taken as being insulting—some people would be insulted by it—it would be caught by the way in which the Bill is drafted. The only safeguard for getting out of that dilemma is the discretion that is given to the Attorney-General. That is what the hon. Gentleman and the Government seem completely to fail to grasp.

Chris Bryant: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman wholly fails to grasp the point that, as the Home Secretary stated this afternoon, if there is a necessity for clarification in the drafting process—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman can restrain himself and keep calm, he will be able to make a speech in a few more minutes and deprive his colleagues of yet more time.

Let me return to another expression of faith that the hon. Member for North Antrim might wish to restate:

I am sure that some Catholics would understandably find that deeply offensive, but it would not be caught by the Bill. If I thought for a single instant that it could, I would be unable to support it. I am glad that the Home Secretary made that clear this afternoon, but it may be necessary to clarify it further in Committee. Not only would the 39 articles and the Westminster confession not be caught by the Bill, but neither would "The Satanic Verses".

Several Opposition Members, although they spoke genuinely, called not only for freedom of speech—which, as the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) said, is not absolute, as several laws, not least in relation to intellectual property and libel, have made clear—but, in effect, for freedom for hateful theology.

It is right that there should be a very high threshold for the Attorney-General before he agrees to go forward with a prosecution, partly because of the question of intention. One of the aspects that we will need to tease out in Committee is precisely how intention is measured. Strict liability as it has historically been applied—certainly, since 1979, to the blasphemy laws—would be inappropriate were we to try to assert it in this context.

Similarly, it is important to tease out in Committee the likelihood of somebody being incited to racial hatred by the words that were said. None of my examples from the Westminster confession or the 39 articles would, on any common-sense basis, be assumed to be likely to lead to incitement to racial hatred. Further, we should consider whether the language in which somebody advances an argument is temperate or intemperate, and
21 Jun 2005 : Column 749
whether people are using contumelious abuse, as they all too often are. In those cases, yes, I believe that there should be prosecutions. I would say to the hon. Member for North Antrim—it is a great shame that he is not in the Chamber—that when he talks of how he would like to be able to use robust language, he should remember the Letter to James, which issued very precise injunctions on how careful one should be about the use of language.

Let us consider whether we choose our religion. The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) let the cat out of the bag when he said that he was the first Member of Parliament for Henley who was the grandson of a woman born a Muslim. Many people in the world never choose their religion. To all intents and purposes, it is chosen for them by their family and parents.

Mr. Carmichael: Do you believe in free will?

Chris Bryant: Of course I believe in free will and freedom of choice. [Interruption.]

Next Section IndexHome Page