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Chris Bryant: I do not believe that the danger is that people will suddenly become theologians and start engaging in narrow exegesis of some great theological point in Islam, Catholicism or whatever. The problem is that the Lester amendment encapsulates precisely the problem that we already have, and perpetuates it. It will allow the existing loophole to continue, and will say to the Muslim community that we are not interested in whether they suffer attacks or not.
Dr. Harris: I do not agree with any of the points that the hon. Gentleman makes and I do not understand[Interruption.]any of it, he says from a sedentary position. I do not understand how he can get any of that from the Lester amendment. There are many in the Muslim community who recognise what it does and are grateful for it. It makes it clear in law that racists cannot hide behind religious words to promulgate racial hatred. It makes it clear that racist Islamophobia is unlawful. Every time we legislate in this area, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North pointed out, there is a balance to be struck between freedom of speech and the need to tackle a social problem.
We say that, if hatred is being incited against people on the basis of their religion, which will clearly not be considered by the court to be incitement to racial hatred using a religious pretextthat rules out all the activities of the BNP and the far right, for a startand that serious problems are being caused outwith that set of people and those motivations, we will need to re-examine the matter. However, the presumption in the House must be in favour of preserving free speech. Many of the argumentsnot all, because some people did not see that there was a problemaround the introduction of the measure were about the balance between free speech and the need to legislate. Simply because 30 or 40 years ago, when the measure was first introduced, some people thought that it went too farI believe that they were wrong then and that it did not go too far, because there was clear mischief that needed to be dealt withdoes not mean that the Government should have carte blanche to introduce any sort of law. We must discuss each measure on its merits and decide whether the need to preserve free speech has been met.
That deals with the point that was raised in an intervention by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, who urged us and those on his own Front Bench to support a race law that covers only acts likely or liable to lead to other criminal offences. I see his point, and I see the need to balance free speech. The Liberal Democrats believe that the current
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race hate laws are appropriate for dealing with the problem, and that the freedom of speech which they restrict is not a freedom of speech worth defending. It is not rational to attack people on the basis of their race, for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). It is right that we should have philosophical discussions about these matters, but in the end there is a balance. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches believe that the Lester amendment tackles the problem out there, and therefore that it should be supported.
My next point relates to the argument used by the Minister that, because the Attorney-General blocked only seven prosecutions, there is not really a problem. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield and others identified the problem that, in this and similar legislation, we are leaving it to the Attorney-General to decide what is and is not acceptable. One must have good reason for allowing that. The problem for people in the artistic and entertainment world is not just that the Attorney-General will allow them to be prosecuted, but that steps will be taken against them by the Crown Prosecution Service in building up the case to put to the Attorney-General and by the police. They may even be picked up for questioning or arrested.
Complaints will be made against artists and entertainers and, as the Government accept in a letter to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), who kindly gave me a copy, there will be restrictions on their ability to present their work. In a letter of 7 July from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), although under the letterhead of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), accepts that
That spells bankruptcy for that production if the producer has to pull it on the basis of complaints. We have seen that we live in a society where there is a propensity for complaints to be made. We saw it in the case of "Jerry Springerthe Opera", and I fear that we will see it again if it goes to regional theatres, and we saw it in the case of "Behtzi". The Minister should recognise that hiding behind the Attorney-General will not give people who wish to pursue their artistic freedom protection from censorship or from being taken off the air and the stage.
That is not the point. Hon. Members on both sides accept that we live in a climate where people with strong religious views are taking offence, and I am not surprised, given how strongly they feel about their beliefs. They are seeking to restrict the production and broadcasting of pieces of literature, of whatever merit. I accept that that should not come under the Bill, but
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there will be decisions for the police to make well before the matter comes to the Attorney-General. Given what we have seen, there may be many such offences. I hope that the Minister accepts that there will be a chilling effect because of calls for prosecution, investigations prior to prosecution and the actions of the CPS before the matter gets to the Attorney-General. I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with that point in his response.
"For the purposes of determining whether an offence has been committed under sections 18 to 23, it is immaterial whether the words, behaviour, written material, public performance, recording or programme is blasphemous."
I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment and respond to it at the end of the debate. It is regrettable that he has not taken the opportunity provided by the Bill to tackle the anomaly of the blasphemy law. I shall not repeat what I said about that on Second Reading. It would not be in order to talk about repeal of the blasphemy law, but I hope that the Minister will accept that there is an urgent need to make it clear in the Bill and generally that freedom of speech is paramount.
Although Christians may be offendedthe blasphemy law applies only to Christiansit is wrong that the Government should be standing at the ramparts in this place or in another place to defend a law that is discriminatory, out of time and against the European convention on human rights. I do not understand why the Government, who have looked into the matter, have not felt able to table an amendment or repeal the measure to reassure people who fear that the Bill will be used to bring about the censorship of people who wish to say strong words about, for example, the Christian faith.
I hope that the Minister will respond to the arguments that I and others have advanced, and that he will give comfort to those of us who recognise that there is a problem to be solved, and that amendment No. 1 and new schedule 1 are a far more satisfactory way of dealing with it.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I shall make a brief contribution on a particular aspect of amendment No. 9. In doing so, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) for highlighting many of the flaws in a deeply inadequate Bill.
The one that I skipped over was a reference to Scientologists. I hope my hon. Friend will understand that although Scientology may be very controversial, people who are Scientologists find it profoundly offensive to be included in that list. As he may be aware, Scientologists in this country are based in East
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Grinstead, which is just outside my constituency, and many hundreds of my constituents are Scientologists. They will be mystified by their inclusion in such a list, particularly as many other groups, such as those who practise voodoo, are not included.
I am not familiar with the details of Scientology as a religion or as a set of beliefs, and having heard the Minister's comments earlier, it would be hard to decide on which side of that boundary it would fall. Those who practise Scientology would say that it is a religion, but many others would contest that. Undoubtedly, as human beings they do a great deal of good. I have seen for myself their project to take people away from drug addiction and their work to encourage methods other than medical technology and medicine to deal with children with conditions such as hyperactivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I have heard of the work that they do in New York to work with firemen with respiratory diseases as a result of their involvement in the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. Many of us have seen the good work that they do in those areas and find it peculiar that they have been singled out for inclusion in this list.
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