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: The hon. Gentleman has attempted to make a distinction between incitement to hatred on racial grounds and incitement to hatred on religious grounds, saying that we cannot change our race but we can change our religion. Does he not accept that in our society it is unreasonable that people should be so afraid that they feel the need to change their religion in order
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to escape the hatred incited against them? Are they not entitled to the same protection that they receive on the basis of their racial group?
Mr. Grieve: I do not think that there are people in this country who feel obliged to change their religion because of fear. The problem that we face in this country is that we are on a cusp in relation to the question of religious tolerance and tolerance of plurality and diversity. The decisions that we make this evening will be of great importance over the next decade, influencing the direction in which we proceed.
Mark Fisher: While the hon. Gentleman is advising the Government on various approaches that might have resolved some of the problems, may I ask his opinion about a totally different approach? A level playing field could be created by abolition of the law of blasphemy. Civil law can be relied on to deal with such matters as public order and race; we have robust laws in many other contexts. Would we not have secured a much more straightforward position by abolishing the blasphemy law, and avoided many of the difficult issues that we are discussing now?
Mr. Grieve: The law of blasphemy is entirely obsolete. I voted for its removal when the opportunity presented itself to the House. I regret that we were not allowed to consider it in the context of this Bill, but we were told that that would be procedurally impossible. I should have been much happier if the Bill had included a repeal of that law.
Bob Spink : Does my hon. Friend accept the general proposition that the Bill creates problems that it should be seeking to address? It sets faith against faith, or at least has the potential to do so. It will give weapons to people who wish to attack Christianity, whichwhether Labour Members like it or notis still the established religion of this country.
Mr. Grieve: I think that the problem with the Bill is that it will give a weapon to every malevolent who wishes to browbeat other groups that might criticise him. Many people would disagree with the remarks made by Sir Iqbal Sacranie, but they were clearly honestly made and part of his belief. His fate in the past few weeksthe fact that he was left in a position of uncertainty for several days while police investigated his remarksis, I am afraid, something of which we shall see a great deal when the Bill is on the statute book. The Bill will be a weapon in the hands of every extremist group, whether religious or secular, with which to browbeat its opponents. I must tell the Minister that I do not believe that any amount of guidance will cure that problem.
: One of the reasons why Sir Iqbal Sacranie is so much in favour of the Bill is, no doubt, the letter that the Home Secretary sent to mosques at the time of the general election. It said that he merely wanted to give Muslims the protection enjoyed by Jews and Sikhs. I understand that right-thinking Muslims are concerned, but that is a complete misreading of existing legislation.
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The fact is that Jews and Sikhs are protected only by racial laws: there is no protection for the religions of Judaism and Sikhism.
Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is right. I fear that many were misled about the impact of the Bill. I have received no representations from the Bill's supporters asking us to adopt a particular position. As the debate has progressed, an increasing awareness may have crept in that the Bill does not deliver what people expected, even those who supported it, and that, on top of that, as Sir Iqbal Sacranie has found in recent weeks, it has unintended consequences that may be rather unpleasant for those who hold religious beliefs.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is concern that some politically correct chief police officers may be malevolent? It may be not religious groups but some chief police officers who seek out cases just to tick a new box.
Mr. Grieve: One of the problems that I have discovered during my time in the House is that the moment one orthodoxy disappears, a new orthodoxy starts to rear its head. I have no doubt from incidents that I have seen in my own constituency, that I have heard about and that I have been written to about, that there is a danger of a new orthodoxy creeping in that prevents people from freely expressing their beliefs because the public good in some way requires it. Just as 150 years ago it was impossible to express one's beliefs on certain matterscertainly before the Catholic emancipationso we are suddenly moving, after what may turn out, if we are not careful, to be a very brief window of true freedom, into a new orthodoxy. That worries me very much.
Mr. Grieve: I suspect that Sir Iqbal was trying to be helpful in view of the fact that some people were calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, but it highlights the need for the House to send the clearest possible message that freedom of speech must be tolerated, that everyone in this country must accept that they may be insulted about their own beliefs, and that that is something we must put up with. The criminal law should prevent people from carrying out and inciting criminal acts, but it should not start to fetter the way in which people express their beliefs. That is the view that I take. I hope that hon. Members share my view, in which case they will support the line of the Opposition in the Lobby.
Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab):
The hon. Gentleman speaks of freedom of speech. Does he think that extremist organisations such as those that operate in my constituency of Burnley, which he visited during the
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election campaign, should have the right to say that Muslim groups should be attacked because of their religion, not because of their race?
Mr. Redwood : My hon. Friend is making an excellent defence of our right to free speech. Is he, like me, receiving a lot of letters and e-mails from law-abiding, mild-mannered Christians in his constituency who are genuinely afraid that the Bill is out to get them and will restrict their right to speak up for their faith and normal worship? The Minister is stirring up a problem where there was not one.
Mr. Grieve: Many people are worried, and the Bill's opaque nature is one of the things that worry them most. I will come on to that in a moment, but the fact that the Minister has to say that he will issue guidance highlights the fact that this is catch-all legislation. He is saying, "You need not worry too much about that because the Attorney-General and the prosecutors will ensure that only those cases that need prosecuting are prosecuted." However, that leads to a terrible chilling factor among those who wish to express their opinions, whether it be comedians who do not know the limit to which they can go, or those who wish to preach their own beliefs and at the same time, inevitably, to criticise the beliefs of others. They do not know at what point their actions can translate into the reckless insult of another, at which point they will be prosecuted and condemned. That is the nub of the matter.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there are some parallels with the compensation culture? Vagueness and uncertainty are forcing people into behaviour that is completely mad when it is considered objectively. The Bill is uncertain. Does he agree that the fear of prosecution is likely to lead people into behaving absurdly?
Mr. Grieve: I have no doubt that there will be absurd consequences. For example, I have no doubt that those who really do wish to stir up hatred will make speeches in which, although they use horrific language to criticise the beliefs and practices of other faiths, their every fifth phrase will be, "But of course I exempt the practitioners." That will have exactly the same corrosive impact. It will cause exactly the same damage but they will be able to say, "I am completely in the clear." Therefore, the mischief cuts in every direction. Far from bringing about the quietening of discourse, which is what I think the Minister intends, that will be exploited in every possible way. One will find that it will be the innocent who will fall foul of the law and will be left most defenceless.
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