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"readily admitted that the 'free speech' clause in the Government's amendment 'has no legal effect'. That is because the proviso at the end of Clause 29K(1) is entirely circular. In practice it means: 'You have not committed an offence unless you have committed an offence'."
Paul Goggins: The point of putting the freedom of expression amendment into the Bill is this: I have always argued that the Bill as originally drafted would not have caught the comedians, the serious commentators or the people who engage in vibrant debate and discussion about religion, but hon. Members on both sides, including some of my hon. Friendsmy hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) was foremost among themsaid that it was not enough to have the word of a Minister on the Floor of the House and his interpretation of these matters. So we make it clear on the face of the Bill that freedom of expression is permitted and will continue, as it should in a free and open society.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister. He is being very generous. The difficulty that many of us have had throughout the passage of the Bill is that whatever sane and sensible comments may be made from the Dispatch Box by a Minister, and whatever sane and sensible decision may be taken by the Attorney-General in bringing a prosecution or by a court in interpreting the facts before a trial, there will be complaints, which will be investigated by the police. The Minister says that he will give guidance to the police, and I am sure he will. The problem is that that may well be the sort of guidance that has allowed over 35,000 people to be stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, with only 455 arrests. Such guidance will give no comfort to people who may be affected by the Bill.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister is being generous in giving way, but there is little point in hon. Members intervening if they do not listen to the answer when the Minister is responding. The Minister ought to be given time to complete one intervention before he tries to answer another.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will take one further intervention from my hon. Friend the
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Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), once I have answered the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I regard it as a personal responsibility to make sure that once the Bill is enacted, the guidelines are drawn up properly in consultation with outside organisations, including faith organisations, and those who have mounted the most massive campaign against the Bill. I have no problem with that. I want to engage with them as we draw up the guidance, so that we get it absolutely right and ensure confidence in the way that the Bill will be policed. I shall take one further intervention and then I shall press on.
Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Will the Minister return to what he was saying about the word, "guidance"? Nobody doubts his personal good intentions in what he says from the Dispatch Box, but we cannot legislate on the basis of guidance that may or may not appear. We are passing laws that will criminalise people by giving them a seven-year sentence. We cannot accept that guidance will get us out of a hole that we are liable to dig for ourselves.
Paul Goggins: I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend. Of course we would want guidance to be available as soon as possible within the process. However, given that we are debating Lords amendments, Government amendments and other amendments, it is not yet clear what legislation will ultimately be enacted. How could we publish guidance about legislation that is not yet determined? As part of the commitment that I have made, I would of course be as open as possible with the House in the way that the guidance is drawn up and involve people as far as possible.
I should make it clear that actual evidence that hatred had been stirred up is not required for the offence to be made out. That is reflected in section 27(2A) in part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986 and section 29L(3) in new part 3A. I note that Opposition Members have tabled an amendment that would remove that provision from our proposed wording. However, it seems self-evident, given that the offences that we propose are based on intent or recklessness, that the consequence of such activity does not have to be realised for the offence to be committed. It would be nonsensical if one had to produce someone in court who said that they had been stirred up to hatred in order for the offence to be proved.
I come now to the area that has probably been the source of most concern, which in view of all the comments that have been made means that we could be in for an interesting few minutesthe whole issue of freedom of expression. I stand by the reassurances that I have previously given to the House. I still believe that the Bill as originally drafted would not have prevented anyone from telling jokes, preaching and teaching or engaging in robust discussion about religion or belief. However, I promised, particularly in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and others, that if suitable wording could
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be found I would be in favour of a clear statement in the Bill. Proposed section 29K of new part 3A contains such a statement and makes it clear that discussion, debate, criticism, expression of antipathy, abuse, insult, ridicule or attempts to convert people from one faith to another will not be covered by the Bill unless the requirements of the offences as regards intent or recklessness are satisfied. It also makes it crystal clear
It also makes it crystal clear that the offences are concerned with the stirring up of hatred against people, not religious belief itself. We believe that that provides the reassurance that many have been seeking. Indeed, Lord Lester, speaking about the way forward proposed by the Government during Third Reading in the other place, said that this form of declaratory statement would be
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Under-Secretary has been generous in giving way. I want to ask specifically about conversion to another faith. I have several good Islamic friends, and one must understand that attempts to convert anybody from Islam to another faith are deeply offensive to Muslims. Were I or any other Christian to attempt to convert someone, we would commit an offence that is punishable under, for example, all four branches of the Sunni sharia, by death in the case of a male apostate. It is a serious offence if someone in an Islamic country tries to convert somebody from Islam. It is also a serious offence for Islamic people to stand by and listen to someone trying to convert another from Islam. How can that possibly not fulfil the Under-Secretary's criteria?
Paul Goggins: I understand that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about those mattershe has expressed those opinions previously. I emphasise that people may use offensive language that may make others feel offended, but if they do not intend to stir up hatred and they are not reckless about their behaviour and words, no offence is committed. We are making it clear on the face of the Bill that robust expression, including an attempt to convert people to another faith, will be permitted.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): My Friend is reintroducing the concept of insulting and abusive behaviour. I refer him to press stories about the huge controversy that is raging in Denmark, where cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed have been published in a newspaper. I shall give him two examples and I want him to tell me whether the cartoons would be banned under the Bill. The first depicts Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban and the second has him telling dead suicide bombers that he has run out of virgins with which to reward them. Would those cartoons be caught by the measure?
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