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Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I have just voted in the Aye Lobby, so I feel that I owe it to my colleagues and the Minister to explain my background for doing so. I shall probably abstain on Third Reading.

The strength of our society lies with its tolerance, understanding and diversity. That has emerged over centuries, and although the overwhelming majority of people enjoy the benefits that it brings, there are those, for their own odious and self-interested motives, who want to take advantage of the system and abuse it. An inevitable defect of decency and tolerance is allowing those who do not share our views or values to speak out and have their say too, however unpleasant and unwelcome that is.

In May, I was returned in Keighley and Ilkley following a bitter, dreadful fight where hope triumphed over hate. Perhaps the most odious of characters, the chairman of the British National party, was soundly defeated into last place. With the defeat of extremism comes, I believe, a great responsibility to understand and address the reasons why it came to my constituency and to ensure that it never returns. One of the main
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reasons was the undercurrent of the feeling of unfairness and inequality that was able to take root. It is perceived that many minority groups are viewed differently and treated more leniently by the law as a result of their minority status. In essence, protection is offered from the full weight of the law for the fear of being branded a racist. That perception has crippled political, social and economic development in cities such as Bradford. Lord Ouseley, whose report was commissioned prior to the Bradford riots in 2001, spoke out about the fear of debate in Bradford and the need to have open and frank discussions. Some four years later, we are no further forward. The manifestation of the BNP in Bradford and Keighley is a result of that failure.

I am not suggesting for one minute that protection under the law should not be offered to those who are in danger of persecution or violence. However, I am simply not convinced that well-intentioned legislation that emphasises differences and identifies segregation provides that protection. It might, in reality, have the reverse effect.

In a rich society such as ours in which our diversity should be celebrated and encouraged, rather than concentrating on what makes us different, perhaps we should look more at what unites us: our humanity, social conscience, willingness to help others and steadfast faith in democracy, equality and achievement. Surely the celebration of our common values and beliefs must be the way forward, thus shifting away from an attempt to isolate or segregate any specific community or religion. That would be far more successful at encouraging integration, which is what I look forward to and work for.

Protection comes in many forms: the weight of criminal justice—which if applied is more than sufficient—argument, and education. All those offer powerful solutions. If I am described as an infidel because of my beliefs, do we want the accuser to be prosecuted, or do we want to engage with that perverse view and demonstrate how erroneous it is? One of the fundamental principles of any religious belief must be tolerance, so allowing prosecution is a dangerous path to tread.

How was the BNP defeated in Keighley and Ilkley? It was achieved not by prosecution, but by reasonable argument. Its members were exposed as liars and the party was shown to be the politically bankrupt group that it truly is. Opposition to the BNP was based on a broad coalition of trade unions, churches, mosques, voluntary groups and businesses—indeed, all the decent people of Keighley and Ilkley. The sheer weight of argument, concentrating on those issues that unite us, irrespective of colour, religion, age and sex, for example, expose extremism for what it is. Take away the fear from debate, and our common interests—humanity, decency, tolerance and equality—are allowed to shine through. Restrictions, however well intentioned, stifle that debate. How can we ever expect to rid our society of the horrors of honour killings if we are limited by those whose perverse understanding of their religion makes them believe that it is their entitlement and they may threaten prosecution?

Does the Bill take us in the wrong direction? Perhaps we should be looking in the opposite direction and remove the blasphemy laws from the statute book so that we are all of equal status. I cherish the diversity in
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my constituency and throughout the country. I am yet more determined to defeat extremism from wherever it originates. I want to have a constituency, and a country, that is comfortable with itself and its neighbours. That is my ambition. I am not convinced that legislation that    encourages further segregation, however, well intentioned, will provide the protections that it aims to deliver.

9.31 pm

Mr. Carmichael: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I commend her on what I thought was a remarkably thoughtful and major contribution. I welcome her to the debate on the Bill.

Consideration of the Bill in Committee was a pleasure, principally because of the good humoured way in which the Minister handled the proceedings. It is often said that the Government are leading us into a nanny state. I suspect that there may be some truth in that, and I suspect also that we have in the Minister a new Labour Mary Poppins. He is the man who provides the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. However, what he has provided us with in the Bill remains a pretty unpalatable medicine. It remains a medicine that is in search of an ill to cure.

As I understood the Minister on Report, he seems to be telling us that the Government are bringing forward this legislation and insisting on it because they have a wish to address a perceived anomaly in the treatment of Jews and Sikhs under existing legislation, and other religious groups. At the same time, he accepted that the nature of that cover was such that other groups were already covered to the same extent by existing legislation. Perhaps it was not intellectually the Minister's finest hour, if I might put it like that.

An interesting feature of the Minister's speech was his offer to provide draft guidance on good practice that would be used to implement the Bill's provisions. I welcome that. Such guidance will be useful. However, I wonder why we are hearing about guidance at this stage. What was the rush in introducing the Bill? Why have we had Second Reading, consideration in Committee followed by consideration on Report in such a short compass when we are in an 18-month Session? If the guidance is to be made available, surely it should have been provided to us at a time when we could have made proper use of it. The guidance might well have answered many of the objections that have been raised. We do not know because the refusal to publish it so far means that, effectively, the Government are asking us to buy a pig in a poke.

I am embarrassed that we are sending forward a Bill that is so bad even after we have spent so much time on it. I accept what the Minister says that whatever faults there have been in the Government's approach to this proposed legislation, lack of time has not been one of them. I suggest, however, that the Bill is ill conceived in its thinking. It will be dangerous in its execution and I am confident that we have not seen the last of it.

We, the elected House, should not be relying on the other place to give the Bill the sort of scrutiny and the sort of amendment that it so clearly requires. Come the vote on Third Reading, Liberal Democrat Members will be voting against it.
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9.34 pm

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): I was startled by the suggestion from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that there had been a rush to judgment. He may not remember it, but the proposal was first introduced by the Government in November 2001 in response to representations from Muslims throughout the country, who felt that they were being targeted by people stirring up religious hatred against them after the evil events in New York and Washington. I was surprised and taken aback by comments that implied that, because the representations were made by Muslims and the Government responded to them, there was something wrong. We spend all our time in politics responding to representations—sometimes we reject them, at other times we take them on board. However, the proposal was introduced in response to reasonable representations.

The air of today's debate—and I know that there have   been serious discussions in Committee—was characterised by some nice academic and philosophical debating points. However, it is not nice, academic or philosophical on the streets of my constituency at the moment, and neither was it in 2001. Women are taking their children to school and collecting them in fear because they wear a hijab or headscarf. I want to protect them against the hatred stirred up against them by hate-filled people who make them go about their ordinary day-to-day life in fear. We owe it to all our constituents to try to protect them against people who incite fear.

One objection to the Bill rests on the fact that it is acceptable to outlaw incitement to racial hatred, because race is innate whereas as religion is not—it is a matter of choice. Several Members, including the Minister, who made a very fine speech in response to an earlier debate, pointed out that most people are born into the religion in which they remain. I shall ignore that point, however, and urge people to pursue the logic of their argument: it is all right to try to protect people against incitement to hatred because of their race, which they cannot change, but it is not all right to try to protect people from incitement to hatred because of their religion, which they can change. To me, that practically amounts to an incitement to incitement. People can put themselves right with the hate-mongers by changing their religion or abandoning their beliefs. That is not a sound proposition to make in a democratic Parliament.

We have heard all this stuff about comedians whose freedom of expression will be curtailed, as they will be deprived of the right to incite people to hatred against others because of their religion. That is a rather extreme joke, and I am notorious for politically incorrect jokes myself. People will not fall foul of the provision unwittingly. Under the Bill, they must intend to stir up hatred or, in all the circumstances, be likely to do so. If comedians cannot manage to avoid that, I suggest that they shut up shop altogether.

Clearly the measure, like the law against racial hatred, has two effects. First, it has a genuine deterrent effect. The law against incitement to racial hatred has deterred a great deal of mouthing off, which was dangerous. That is indicated, in part, by the relatively low number of cases that have been brought. Secondly, it was a declaratory matter. We declared that incitement to racial hatred was wrong. That is an unusual concept in the common law. If we pass the Bill, we will be declaring
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that incitement to hatred of people because of their religion is wrong. That will be another step forward. Who needs the right, which we apparently want to maintain for them, to incite hatred of people because of their religion? I submit that no one requires that right, and if they feel they currently have it, we ought to deprive them of it.

Finally, this is no rush to judgment. This is a proposition that I was advocating before the Government introduced it in November 2001. On Second Reading I said that I hoped we would pass the law before there was a major terrorist incident, so that for once the law got in in advance of events. Sadly, we had the awful events of Thursday last week. Two of the explosions were in my constituency. We are not rushing to judgment. It is a total coincidence that we are changing the law on the Monday afterwards, but it is the right and proper thing to do.

The circumstances to which the Government proportionately and properly responded in 2001 have arisen again. If we take seriously the protection of all our fellow citizens, it is up to us to offer that protection. For all its possible shortcomings and difficulties, the Bill does that. I hope that the House of Lords leaves it alone—it does not need to come back to this place—and that we get a new law and implement it.

9.42 pm

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