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Paul Goggins: I have only a short time in which to respond to five and a half hours of debate, so I cannot keep taking interventions. Nevertheless, I did make a point about the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, so I will take just his intervention before proceeding.
Mr. Gummer: I thank the Minister for that. If what I said would not be caught by the Bill, will he give us a single example of what would be caught by this Bill that is not caught by any other legislation now in force?
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) gave us, in his own words, probably his shortest sermon ever. He said that it was his duty to defend our faith with the gifts that God has given us. I agree with that. With this Bill, we want to defend people of faith against whom hate is incited because of that faith. That is the aspiration behind the proposed offence.
This is the third time that the Government have brought this measure to Parliament. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear earlier, there are differences in the way in which it is being presented. First, it is a stand-alone Bill, not connected with other measures that may or may not be controversial. That will allow us to focus closely on what it contains and to conduct our scrutiny as we should. Secondly, the Bill comes at an early stage in this Parliament and fulfils a manifesto commitment. We are not running against the clock with this measure. Everyone understands that it was in the policy programme of the party that won the election and that that is why we intend to legislate.
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There are three specific reasons why we want this law on incitement to hatred on grounds of religious belief to be added to racial hatred. First, we believe that it is the right thing to do. We know that some would seek to turn people's fears and frustrations into hatred of others purely on the grounds of their faith.
Secondly, the new offence will close the unacceptable loophole in existing legislation that means that Jews and Sikhs, who have a distinct ethnic as well as religious identity, are protected from incited hatred, whereas other faith groups, and those without religious beliefs, are not. Thirdly, there is compelling evidenceincluding evidence given to Parliament by the policethat identification of communities purely along racial lines is no longer adequate. Some extremists exploit that to incite hatred against groups and individuals with impunity. In particular, although they do not deny that there were other political and social causes, the police believe that the gap in the law was part of the mix that led to the disturbances in our northern towns and cities in 2001.
Racial hatred and religious hatred exist. They have the potential to create fear in individuals and to tear communities apart, creating dangerous tensions that can lead to discrimination, abuse or violence. The Bill is designed to allow everyone to have the sense of security and safety to which they are entitled.
The first point had to do with what the prosecution would have to prove. Every Opposition Member who spoke raised that point, but I do not think that any of them had a full grasp of the effects of the proposals. To prove incitement, a person has to be shown to have used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour and that, having regard to all the circumstances, the words, behaviour or material are likely to be seen by any person in whom they are likely to stir up religious hatred. All the Opposition Members who spoke mentioned that, but section 18(5) of the Public Order Act 1986 states that the defendant must have intended his words or behaviour to be threatening, abusive or insulting, or was aware that his words or behaviour might be threatening, abusive or insulting. That is a very important point. It shows that intention must be proved, as must the use of words and behaviour to that end. The mental element must therefore be present in both limbs of the offence.
It was also argued that the Bill will place an unfair restriction on free speech, that it will stop comedians telling jokes and prevent people with strong views about religion from expressing their opinions. I promise the House that I will not tell any jokes tonight, but I emphasise that there is nothing in the humour of Rowan
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Atkinson, Stephen Fry or any of those who lampoon religion that would be caught by the Bill. Hatred is a high test, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) knows. It involves intense dislike, but it also involves hostility and enmity. The lower test of alarm or offence does not apply.
Paul Goggins: I will not give way on that point because I shall come to the request, made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal and many other hon. Members, that Ministers give examples of the kind of behaviour that would be captured by the offence. Ministers are always pressed to give examples of specific offences, but there are great dangers in doing so. As we know, it is for the courts to decide whether or not an offence has been committed. However, many hon. Members on both sides of the House will have seen the kind of vile material that could be used to incite hatred on the grounds of religious belief; but, of course, proving such incitement requires a knowledge of the context in which that material was used.
It is true that such material might be captured by the religiously aggravated offences that we have created in recent yearsit could be captured by the offences of incitement to hatred, to violence or even to murderbut we have judged that there is a gap between the aggravated offences and incitement to violence and hatred. Where people incite hatred, there is a gap that parallels incitement to hatred on the grounds of race, and we believe that that gap needs to be filled. So there is no perfect example that I can give to the right hon. Gentleman.
Paul Goggins: No, I will not give way, but I can certainly tell the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal that materials exist that could, in the right circumstances, be used to incite religious hatred in the way that I have outlined.
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is not giving way. May I say that the private conversation in the Chamber is absolutely deplorable. The Minister is entitled to respond to the debate, and he should be given a hearing.
Those with strong views about certain beliefs will still be able to speak out. It will still be possible to criticise the beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion, or to claim that they are false or harmful. People will still be free to proselytise or to urge the followers of a different religion to cease to practice theirs. Even if their comments are intended or likely to
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cause grave offence, they still will not be covered by the new offence. We are seeking to protect the believer, not the belief.
In line with the assurances given by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary earlier, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) that we will consider whether there are ways in which the Bill can be strengthened to provide the kind of assurances that he seeks.
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