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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We must not have interventions from a sedentary position.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman should mind his temperate language. Of course I believe in freedom of choice and people's freedom to change their religion. However, the vast majority of people do not choose their religion, which the clothes that they wear makes as evident as the colour of their skin determines their race. That is part of the problem that leads to so much abuse.

The Bill is only half the story. We should get rid of the blasphemy laws. Blasphemy is no longer seditious. The laws protect only the Church of England and they are hardly used and much misunderstood. We should also reform the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860.

9.21 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The United Kingdom has a long tradition of freedom of speech, and I believe that the Bill will curb that freedom. Such concerns are shared not only in the House but outside it by people of all faiths and of none. A spokesman for the Central London mosque said that he was

Muslim journalists and writers are worried that the Bill will inhibit their ability to publish critiques of other religions and those who claim no belief or religion. Christian groups are concerned about the Bill's impact on faith schools and the freedom to continue to preach their claims of the exclusivity of Christianity.

However, concerns about the Bill are not confined to faith groups. The National Secular Society argues that the Bill

Some hon. Members have expressed the same view today. The society goes on to say that the measure will be

I believe that the Bill is in danger of creating a cordon sanitaire around centuries of free speech and religious debate. I fear that it will diminish personal freedoms,
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restrict academic scrutiny and hinder the helpful probing of social commentators. It will be an unnecessary straitjacket on democracy and, at a stroke of a pen, end centuries of enlightening discourse about the rights and wrongs of religion and the need or, indeed, the lack of need for religion in our society. [Interruption.] I hear some murmurings on the Government Front Bench and I recognise an old adversary and, indeed, honourable friend, the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality.

I shall give an example. Both Islam and Christianity are missionary religions. They require people of their faith to share their faith, proselytise, evangelise and engage in debate with those of other religions and of no religion, sharing the attractions, necessity, virtues and compelling nature of their belief. Part of that mission includes "differentiation"—highlighting key differences between them and other beliefs. The Bill runs the serious risk of preventing the presentation of such differentiation and thereby threatens a key freedom of both faiths.

On the question of exclusivity, I want to ask the Minister whether, as a result of the proposals in the Bill, religions will still be able to claim that they are exclusive, and the only way to God. What would happen if such a claim by a particular religion offended someone in my local community? Would the police have to act? Would the Attorney-General of the day be forced into a political position in which he or she felt that they no choice but to act, however subjective the charge might be? Would atheists be able to continue to claim that Muslims or Christians were deluded because to believe in the existence of a transcendental being is folly and foolishness? Would those who sought to challenge faiths that question homosexual lifestyles be able to continue to do so? I note that Gay Times suggests that the proposals

All people have the right to hold robust views on religion. I look forward to the Minister's response to these questions.

The trouble with the Bill is that it will seamlessly allow the offended against to determine how offended they have been, rather than allowing the evidence of the offence itself unquestionably to show the offence. Thus, the giving of offence changes into an offence itself. Indeed, the lack of a definition in the Bill of terms such as "hatred", "religion" and "beliefs" could raise the issue of subjectivity by the courts—and, perhaps more worryingly, the Attorney-General—to dangerous new heights, and relegate objectivity to playing second fiddle in a lesser place.

At present, the law has to prove that it is likely that hatred will be stirred up. The Bill states that the offence is now committed if the words, behaviour, material, play, recording, broadcast or programme service is

The Government also claim that it is individuals who will be protected, not religions themselves. However, that rebuttal is contrary to the spirit of other legislation on racial hatred, which protects both the person and their race. Might there not be undue pressure on the Attorney-General, when seeking to protect people from religious hatred, to protect the religions themselves, thereby hindering free speech?
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Of course, Muslims, Christians and those of other faiths and beliefs—and those who have none—should be protected against violence and intimidation, but public order legislation already exists to deal with those issues, despite the denial of that fact by those on the Government Front Bench, and indeed by some Members on the other Opposition Benches. We have seen the extension of provisions dealing with "racially aggravated" crimes to cover "racially or religiously aggravated" offences. In short, there are enough laws and provisions dealing with this issue already.

I would also like to ask the Secretary of State what thought has been given to the possibility of malicious litigation between religions, in which a religion might seek to put down an early marker or to test the boundaries of any new Act? Does he not fear that the courts could be used as a public platform for theological point scoring, allowing competing religions, and even sects within religions, the opportunity to flex their theological muscles?

As I have said, I am opposed to anyone or any organisation seeking to stir up religious hatred, but I question whether the Government are going about this in the right way. Where religious hatred exists, it is usually the result of a lack of education, and a lack of understanding and awareness of the beliefs, traditions and world view of a religion. Interestingly, the Islamic Human Rights Commission has said of the Bill that

Surely, in this post-11 September period, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the discussion of religious ideals and concepts, both oral and written, need to exist without fear of prosecution?

The Government's aim of seeking to create equal rights is a noble one, but they need to tread carefully to ensure that they do not create special rights. In adopting the worthy goal of promoting inclusivity, they should avoid promoting a new, narrow type of exclusivity. The Bill will mute individuals, and will give the courts an air of inquisition. Moreover, I have never known an Act of Parliament to create love, and perhaps that is the only antidote to the hatred of which we have heard today.

For centuries this country has had a proud tradition of religious tolerance, which has co-existed quite happily alongside robust scrutiny of all religions and beliefs. I mentioned that in my maiden speech, as did the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik). I believe that, despite the Government's best intentions, this law may well increase intolerance and misunderstanding rather than creating harmony. The World Association of Writers was right to suggest that at this time religious

I oppose religious hatred, but I also oppose the Bill, because I do not think that the latter will serve to reduce the former. I hope that the Government will reconsider its position, thus safeguarding Britain's long-held traditions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

9.31 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): This has been a fascinating debate. It has been most enjoyable to sit through. We heard two maiden speeches. The hon.
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Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) made a speech of immense power and immense sincerity, and I am sure that he will make a great mark on the House.

When I first entered this place, someone told me that being in the House of Commons was rather like being on a cruise ship. One was completely isolated; there were function rooms to which one could go; one could go on deck and watch the sea passing by; but one was hermetically sealed off from everyone else. I only hope that we are not about to strike an iceberg, like the Titanic. I trust that that will not be our collective fate.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) made a delightful speech. I am glad to note that the new orthodoxy of the Labour party is moving towards a greater appreciation of nuclear power, although the hon. Gentleman may well have to persuade some of his colleagues.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) pointed out that the Public Order Act 1986, as currently applied, is already having a powerful effect in curbing and setting limits to religious discourse. Street preachers are now routinely being hauled in, whether in my right hon. Friend's constituency or mine, on the basis that what they are saying in the street might be insulting to those on the receiving end—even when what they are saying is no more than that someone will go to hell if that person does not share their view. I do not want to become involved in that particular debate, but I will make one point, because it is immensely important.

If we are talking of setting limits on what might formerly have been thought to be very important freedoms, the Public Order Act as it stands—along with the religiously aggravated nature of offences—is going a long way towards doing that. Some of what is being done even causes me some disquiet. I do not want the Act to be changed, but I think that the House should bear that in mind. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made similar points.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) made a powerful speech against the Bill. I can answer one of his points immediately. As the law stands, and as we have made it in the last 12 months, anyone can carry out a citizen's arrest of anyone on the basis of suspicion that that person has committed any offence. I ask the House to reflect on how that will operate under the Bill. It will be open to anyone to arrest any person whom he considers to fall foul of the legislation that we are about to pass. That will apply irrespective of whether the Attorney-General subsequently decides to bring a prosecution. The fact that the Bill is so widely drawn must mean that people will—technically, or at least allegedly—frequently commit offences. There will not even be the mechanism of redress for wrongful arrest because, even if the Attorney-General decides not to prosecute, it will not be capable of being argued that the arrest was wrongful. We will undoubtedly have to return to that issue in Committee, but it was a powerful point, well made. It highlights what I think are the absurdities underlying the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) rightly said, the Government do not understand their own Bill and that precisely illustrates the point.
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The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) made a powerful speech. I am familiar with his community and its diversity. I share his desire that we should all try to use temperate language about each other, but the Bill will not achieve that end and has many vices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made a powerful speech in respect of wishing to maintain freedom of expression. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) shared the disquiet about the impact of the Bill. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was concerned about the BNP but, as I pointed out, I think that the BNP is likely to be a net beneficiary of the Bill if it decides to set itself up as a religious sect, because it will be able to claim the protection of the legislation.

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