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Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab):
At the heart of the hon. Gentleman's argument is the assertion that a person's religious belief is, in many respects, very similar to that person's political belief orthis example was given earlierhis or her support for a football club.
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Does he accept that many people's religious beliefs are much more fundamental than their political beliefs, or even their support for football clubs? Are not those beliefs fundamentally connected to their family, culture and heritage? Indeed, in many cases their religious beliefs are even more fundamental to their sense of identity than their race.
Mr. Grieve: Of course, some may be apostates when it comes to the political views of their forefathers. Nevertheless, one's political views are closely bound up with one's philosophical outlook. But I would hate that to be treated as a defining characteristic, so immutable that it was entitled to special protection. What worries me about the approach of the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) is that it does suggest that someone's religious outlook is immutable. It suggests that we can compartmentalise society into a series of blocks of individuals believing certain things, which deserve to be preserved in aspic for all time without challenge.
I believe that in the pluralistic society that we are rapidly becoming in this countryindeed, we may have already reached that pointwe should be going in the opposite direction. Far from there being special protection, people must face the fact that their personal point of view on matters as sensitive as religion, for instance, will come in for robust criticism, discussion and discourse. If we embark on the road down which I fear the Bill will take us, we will institutionalise difference, curb debate and thus produce a far less flexible society than the society we undoubtedly need if we are to go forward and prosper.
Sir Peter Soulsby: I certainly do not think that a religious outlook needs be immutable, but I believe it to be fundamental. It is, I believe, fundamental to how people identify themselves, and fundamental in a way that is particularly relevant to the Billfundamental to how others identify them and promote hatred of them. Surely the purpose of the Bill is to protect those who are identified by others, and by themselves, according to their religion. Surely we should extend the protection that already exists in the context of their identification in terms of race.
I appreciate that we are dealing with religious hatred. We should bear it in mind, however, that 200 years ago those in this Chamberor rather down the Corridor, where the Chamber was thenwere living in a society in which, notwithstanding the tolerance accorded to some dissenters and indeed to small Jewish minorities, there was a consensus, institutionalised by Parliament, that certain Christian beliefs contained in the 39 Articles of religion must be imposed for the sake of social conformity, and to maintain the body politic. That is the state in which our country then was.
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Over the last 200 years we have seen a dramatic change, not just in the extent of the tolerance accorded to others who wish to practise other religious beliefs. The country is in the process of a massive transformation: multiculturalism and religious views are important not just to small minority groups, but to substantial sections of society. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that in those circumstances I think it is particularly important for freedom of discourse to be maintained, including freedom to criticise in vehement terms. We must all get used to that. If we do not, we shall be moving in the wrong direction.
Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend is arguing strongly for new schedule 1, and I agree with him. One answer might be to insert in the new schedule a further amendment defining hatred, so that only conduct likely to cause people to engage in violence or unlawful behaviour towards the group in question would be unlawful. There would be parity in the case of both racial and religious groups, because we would have redefined hatred to involve the consequences of that state of mind.
There is a philosophical argument that, because racial characteristics are immutable, allowing people to express hatred based simply on race is so peculiar and irrational that it may be proper to curb it. That, I think, is why it was curbed in the racial hatred clauses of the Public Order Act 1986. So while I very much agree with my right hon. and learned Friend about the application of this argument to religion, I should want to think very carefully about rowing back from the 1986 Act, which was framed to protect people on the basis of their racial identity. That could be argued to be a retrograde step; however, I hope that this issue can be looked at elsewhere.
I hope that the Minister will consider the new clause and related amendments carefully. I point out now, should I be unable to do so later, that I will put my name to, and view with great sympathy, new schedule 1.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): There were some rather elevated exchanges earlier on about Voltaire, which lifted the tone of the debate no end. While they were going on, I was rather reminded of John Stuart Mill, which shows how complicated these issues are. In his famous mid-19th century essay "On Liberty", which defined how many of us think about these matters, he gives a very nice example. He says that it is perfectly proper for people to go around saying that all corn dealers are thieves, but that it would not be appropriate to say that to an excited mob outside a corn dealer's house. I am not sure that Mill is right, but that example does show the importance of getting these distinctions right.
Of course, that precise example is currently covered by other sections of the Public Order Act 1986, and it is an important distinction. We are
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talking about inciting people, through speech, to have hatred of others. Even under the current law, those who insult in the street people such as corn dealers on the basis of their religion are likely to be arrested.
Dr. Wright: Yes, and as we all know this is the important distinction. We are at one on the issues of incitement and violence, but we are not at one on where to draw the distinction between beliefs and believers. We keep coming back to this issue from many different directions, but it is fundamental to the Bill. Many of us are very keen to respond to the argument that we need to stop members of certain groups being picked on. We do not like people being picked on, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that certain members of religious communities are being picked on not for their religion, but simply because of who they are. So we respond very positively to the need to protect people against being picked on, which is why I approach this argument in a sympathetic spirit. However, at the same time, I want people to be able to pick on other people's beliefs. That presents us with a difficulty. How can we protect the right of people to pick on other people's beliefs, while not picking on such people simply because they belong to a religious group?
There is a balancing act that we want to perform, but not because some of us are on the side of free speech and others are on the side of protection. Most of us want both to protect and to guarantee free speech; we are simply trying to find the correct balance.
Mr. Hogg: In citing the words of Mill, the hon. Gentleman in fact told us how that balance should be struck. The reason why we do not describe corn merchants as thieves when we are standing outside a corn merchant's house is that the mob might throw a brick through the corn merchant's window. In other words, we consider the consequences of the words that we use, and that is the point on which we should be focusing, is it not?
Dr. Wright: I thought that it might be hazardous to cite that example, and in fact, the situation is even more complicated than that. In fact, in such a circumstance one is invoking anticipated possible consequences, rather than real ones. By way of defence, a person might say, "Of course I am entitled to say that all corn dealers are thieves when outside a corn dealer's house. I am not saying that you should act on that belief. I am not saying that you should burn the man's house down." So it is quite a leap to jump from a point of view that is certainly controversial, and in respect of which the circumstances matter, to an assumption about its consequences.
The serious distinction that we have to draw is between beliefs and believers. In trying to strike this balancewe are all doubtless trying to strike it in different waysI simply wanted the Bill to provide some reassurance. The Minister, who could not be a more congenial and agreeable person to have at the
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Dispatch Box in these circumstances, has indicated his desire to find this middle ground, if it can be found. My new clause simply states:
It is simply an attempt in the most anodyne way possiblea way designed to maximise agreementto secure in the Bill the commitment that nothing in it will stop people criticising or ridiculing other people's belief systems, and that no offences will be created simply because someone acts in that way. If we include such a provision, we will have gone a long way toward getting the balance right, and toward providing the reassurances that many of us want.
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