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Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Can my hon. Friend give me an example of a single faith that does not have any practitioners? He said that people would say that they exempt practitioners. I cannot imagine how they could do so because practitioners and faith go togetherone cannot criticise one without criticising the other.
My hon. Friend is right. The problem is that all beliefs have their adherents, unless the belief is
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dead and wrong. In those circumstances, attacking the belief must undermine the status of the adherent. That is the Bill's most fundamental flaw.
Mr. Winnick : I accept entirely that the hon. Gentleman has a genuine commitment to civil liberties and that he argues with complete sincerity, but does he accept that Labour Members who support the measure have no less a commitment to free speech, and that we were warned constantly that, if we passed race relations measures to ban racial discrimination, we would undermine the honourable tradition of free speech in this country? The critics were proved wrong. We are no less a free country than we were before those laws were passed. We may be making a mistake today. I accept that that is a possibility but the warnings that he and his colleagues are expressing may prove no more right than those of Conservative Members so many years ago.
Mr. Grieve: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is sincere. I am sure that the Government are sincere in their intentions. I believe sincerely that the Government and the hon. Gentleman are profoundly mistaken in their analysis of the way in which the Bill will work. As I said earlier, part of the reason is the failure to carry out a rigorous exercise to separate race and religion. The fact that those two things have been conflated is at the heart of the Government's misunderstanding of the issue. Politics and religion are much closer than religion and race, and no one in the House would argue that we should have a Bill of this kind to protect people's political views, although, having said that, that might be tempting providence.
I turn to the matters that have been raised by the Minister. He sought to provide reassurance that new paragraph 29K will provide a crucial protection to debate in respect of freedom of expression. I disagree. First, the Lords amended the Bill to protect freedom of speech. I think that their version is better than what the Government propose, as it makes specific reference to "adherents". Interestingly, the Government chose not to include that in their amendments but, that apart, there is not a great deal between the two versions.
However, paragraph 29K(2) of the Government's proposed new schedulethe "avoidance of doubt" provisionis a different matter. I am aware of its origin, and I am sure that Lord Lester had good intentions, but the more I read it the more I am convinced that it is not the worth the paper it is written on. It is an entirely circular argument, whose consequence may be that almost every prosecution will spiral down into oblivion.
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However, it will not prevent the police from knocking on people's doors and saying, "You'd better be careful. We heard what you had to say in your preaching hall last week and we didn't like it."
will lay themselves open to the charge that they intend to stir up religious hatred against individuals. The Government place great emphasis on that distinction, but I do not think that it is one that, logically, can be made.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the use of the word "reckless" ignores the fact that almost every religion, with the possible exception of Judaism, is proselytising by nature? Therefore, are not missionaries and others who set out to persuade people about their faith in one sense reckless, as they often disregard the consequences of what they are doing because their faith is so great? Will not that cause the police and others to bully them and lean on them to make them stop proselytising, with the result that there will be great division in society?
Mr. Grieve: There is no doubt that people who preach Islam, the gospels or any other faith embark on a process of confronting people who may be unconvinced. In some cases, they encounter physical or verbal abuse, and the process can be vigorous and cause disturbance. The criminal law exists to keep that disturbance within reasonable bounds. I accept that we need those laws, but the Government want to go further and to produce what is in effect a straitjacket for such encounters. In my view, that is wholly misplaced.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Many people believe that the Bill will lead to the persecution of people who preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the House is right to rein in this Administration in that respect?
Mr. Grieve: My fear is that the Bill will cause people of all faithsand noneincreasingly to be constrained in their ability to follow their consciences, even though they live within the criminal law. That is the mischief in the Bill, and it applies to every religion, and to none.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I grew up in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the consequence of the Bill could be the exact antithesis of what the Government intend? Debates between people of different religions can often be robust and offensive, but they can also produce the sort of accord that is leading to a more peaceful and settled environment in Northern Ireland. If the Bill goes through, there is a good chance that it will cause division between religions, rather than encouraging the environment for debate that can settle differences.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will my hon. Friend consider a slightly different angle on the problems that the Bill is likely to create? If a group of people following a particular form of undesirable activity set themselves up as a cult or religion, could they not use the Bill to claim protection from criticism? It is gradually dawning on moderate Muslims just how restrictive the Bill could be. For instance, a group or people with bizarre sexual preferences might say that those practices were part of their religion. [Hon. Members: "Like the Liberal Democrats."] I was not referring to the Liberal Democrats. Could someone criticise that group of people without falling into the trap that the Government are blunderingly setting out for the House?
Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Earlier in the Bill's passage through the House, we debated the real possibility that people of extreme political views could claim that their views were part of their articles of faith. In that event, they could use that to prevent criticism of their beliefs. I am aware that the definition of religion can be brought before a court, but religions can be created quite easily. They are not confined to the principal, monotheistic faiths.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that only rarely do I allow my faith into the realm of politics. I am a Christian, and I would be very worried if I believed that the Bill would restrict my right, or the right of other Christians, freely to espouse our belief system. However, I accept that there have to be restrictions on how far I go in expressing my views. I trust the judiciary to make sensible and correct decisions about any statements that I might make. That is what they have done with legislation on sexism and racism. Would the hon. Gentleman, as a lawyer, put his faith in the judiciary to make those correct and sensible decisions?
come very close to gobbledegook, as we have discussed. The meaning of those provisions will be argued endlessly in court. Lawyers will have a field day with them, and make a lot of money out of themas they usually do when bad legislation is enacted.
My view is that the Bill is unnecessary. The Lords have done their best to make it as good as it can be and, although I recognise that the Government want to have the Bill on the statute book, we should stick with what the Lords have done.
In conclusion, I turn to the provisions concerning the savings for discussion and debate. The Government insist that it is somehow possible to split belief and believer. As I said earlier, that is not practical, and I shall read a short excerpt from a letter written by Rowan Atkinson in December. He put the matter so tellingly that I cannot improve on it. He wrote:
"As you may know, I have always been sceptical of the benefits of separating the concepts of beliefs and believers in that I have never believed that you can attack one without attacking the other . . . One should try to look at it from a comedian's or dramatist's
That is the simple truth of how the Bill will be constructed if the Government amendments are accepted. It is intimidating. What is permissible, and what is not, is completely unclear. Most people get to know about beliefs or practices that they may not like or approve of through the medium of other people who practise them. To those who believe that the Government's proposals will constitute a safeguard in that respect, I say simply that they really are not worth the paper that they are written on. I accept that the Bill is well intentioned, but it is not in any way capable of providing protection.
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