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I wish to thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for the contribution that they have made so far to consideration of the Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and earlier today. I also wish to extend my thanks and, I am sure, the thanks of the whole House, to all the officials in my Department and elsewhere who have helped the smooth passage of the Bill.
The Bill is small and finely and tightly focused, so there is not much room for manoeuvre, although we began our deliberations, as always, by listening and
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considering where there might be opportunities for improvement. We made one concession, on the powers for citizen's arrest, and I was pleased that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) saw that as a positive move.
The hon. Gentleman and others have acknowledged that we had plenty of time for the scrutiny of the Bill. That was another welcome aspect of our proceedings. He and I have quite regular exchanges across the Floor of the House nowadays. I also enjoyed my exchanges with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and indeed all the hon. Members who took part in the Standing Committee. We had good discussions.
Strong opinions have been expressed outside this place and I say again that I want to engage with them. I want to listen and to offer reassurance where possible. When we draw up the guidance for the legislation, I want to do so in dialogue.
We have considered the Lester amendment. My argument is that it would take us no further. We have looked at definitions of religion, and I argued that that is a matter for the courts rather than for us. We have discussed the likely limb and I have tried to offer the House reassurance that it is still a high test, requiring a high level of intention or awareness. It is also a test of probability, not liability.
Paul Goggins: I have looked carefully at "hatred", and I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman missed our later discussions on the subject. A range of legislation, going back over many years, includes the word "hatred". We have never sought to define that word previously, nor do we do so at this stage. It has never caused us a problem in the past and I do not think that it will in relation to the Bill.
We are introducing the legislation first and foremost because we think that it is the right thing to do. We also want to remove the anomaly whereby Jews and Sikhs are protected while other religious groups are not. Currently, extremists can exploit a loophole in the legislation and we want to prevent that by ensuring that we close that loophole.
No, not Voltaire and not Mill, but the Leader of the Opposition, who, in the House this afternoon, in a measured comment on the dreadful events of last Thursday, said that the terrorists had tried with the fires of hate to destroy the bonds of love. I agree wholeheartedly. We need to take on the hate-mongers, whether they are terrorists or extremists operating in communities up and down our country. The Bill is not the whole answer. We have religiously aggravated offences on the statute book, and it is also an offence to incite violence and murder. But there is a gap, and, through the Bill, we seek to close it.
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Mr. Grieve: I join the Minister wholeheartedly in thanking all those who have participated in the consideration of the Bill. As always, it has been a pleasure to debate the matter with him. He is right: for the first time in my recollection, we can say that a Bill has had adequate scrutiny in the House. That is a rare event, but as I mentioned in Committee, it is certainly to the credit of the Whips, especially the Government Whips and, I suspect, of the Minister that the opportunity was made available to us.
I am also grateful to the Minister for the fact that we have secured an amendment to the Bill. It may only be one amendment, but it certainly commended itself to me, and I am delighted therefore that the Government have taken it on board. Having said that, I fear that the Bill remains, despite that single improvement, seriously and catastrophically flawed. It seeks to do something that is in itself controversial, and I am afraid that it does so rather badly.
Let us start with the controversial element. It is, as the Minister has acknowledged, a fettering of the freedom of speech and expression, but he and the Government say that that is necessary and that they have sought to draft the measure sufficiently tightly that freedom of speech will not be unduly restricted. Yet there are fundamental flaws in the Bill's presentation because, as has been acknowledged in Committee and, indeed, on Report, it is in fact extremely widely drafted and is dependent on a selective interpretation by those who may or not bring prosecutions in determining whom should be penalised for transgressing it. That is a very bad way to start a legislative process.
I am afraid that the Bill is underpinned by the fact that it comes on the back of a series of promises that the Government have made to various groupsoften, I fear, raising expectations that will never be fulfilledin trying to create some kind of equal playing field between religious and racial hatred, and some of the fundamental difficulties with the legislation stem from that. If the Government had sought to present a Bill to the House that centred on religious hatred as a separate issue, I have a feeling that, even though there might have been very serious disagreements and, indeed, a great deal of debate, we might well have been able to focus on some of the key objectives that we have, in fact, been unable to achieve.
In presenting various amendmentsparticularly new clause 2 and, indeed, new clause 4, presented by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)we seem to have come close, as the Minister identified, to considering some of the key things that need to be protected, as well as the mischief that were are trying to prevent. The Bill, sadly, achieves none of those things. Unless it is radically improved in another place, I fear that it will become a classic example of good intentions leading us down a dangerous road.
Mention was made during the debates on Reportin the comments of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)that we should derive comfort from the legislation on race relations and racial hatred because it
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was suggested when it was passed that it was very controversial. I was mindful of his comments. Indeed, I recollect that, although I was very young at the time, my late father expressed as a lawyer some disquiet about the legislation. It is precisely because I think that I can see where his disquiet may have been misplaced that I have certainly attempted to consider the Bill with the idea in mind of whether I could say in 20 years' time that I was mistaken. However, the profound difference between a religious belief and a racial identity inclines me to the view that I am not mistaken at all in taking the attitude that this legislation will, in fact, make no contribution to improving community relations in this country.
The Minister quoted my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and I agree with everything that he said. There is a language of hatred and it needs to be fought, but the best way to fight it is by the public expression of views that those who hate others on matters where they should not do so are wrong. The Government's attempt to introduce what is in effect a mechanistic system of what is and what is not appropriate, far from helping the situation, I believe, will make it worse. It is for those reasons that, although I appreciate the good intentions behind the Government's ideas, yet again, the Opposition are compelled to say that we cannot support the Bill on Third Reading. The improvements made to it are slight; the mischief that remains as a result of it is great.
If the Government really want to tackle this issue, they must get away from the promises made to various people of an equal playing field, accept that religion and race are different, start to look at the real nature of the problem and try to come up with some constructive solutions. We can all agree that it is undesirable that people should preach violence or words that lead to violence, but what the Bill will achieve is the prevention of the perfectly lawful expression of differences of view, which is the very foundation on which our democracy has been based.
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