Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ellwood : Would not life be a lot simpler if we could consider some form of draft guidance? We could then at least determine the Bill's likely impact if it were ever to become law.

6.45 pm

Mr. Carmichael: Such guidance would assist us by giving us a practical idea of what we would be subjecting the citizen to by passing the Bill, but it would be of limited use because guidance is not binding in any way and, as we know, draft guidance can be changed dramatically by the time that it is imposed. Hon. Members will never be given a proper and formal opportunity to debate the guidance.

Dr. Evan Harris: Regardless of the guidance, is not the basic problem that the Government have failed to
31 Jan 2006 : Column 221
give a single example of something that is happening and needs to be caught by the Bill, but is not caught by existing race hate measures or public order offences? At the same time, we know that the Bill will have a chilling effect on people's ability to criticise religions, not least because of the recklessness provisions. The guidance is immaterial to that problem. The Minister has still not given such an example, although the House has asked for it on three occasions.

Mr. Carmichael: I think that the Minister has been asked substantially more than three times, if we consider the Bill's proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report and Third Reading. The request has been made repeatedly, but it has never been met by the Minister.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Is not the reason why the Minister cannot give examples the fact that there are few, if any, examples to give? The Government are caught on the hook because they know the Bill to be bad, but feel that they must go through with it simply because it was offered as an electoral bribe to a part of society.

Mr. Carmichael: There is perhaps some merit in the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, although I would hesitate to use the term "electoral bribe" because I fear that it might be unparliamentary. The Government rather oversold the proposal during the general election. It was suggested to some faith communities that they would be getting the equivalent to Christian blasphemy measures, but clearly the Bill was never intended to be such a thing.

Mr. Leigh: I respect the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) greatly, but he was somewhat unfair on the Government, so I must put the record straight. He said that the Government could not cite a single example, but the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), gave me an example. She said that a group in her constituency had been accused of using sex to recruit members and that someone had attacked it on that basis. She told me that the group would have been protected by the Bill. However, surely one should be allowed to attack groups—they are often such things as cults—that use sex to recruit members. That shows the problem with the Bill, as was pointed out earlier.

Mr. Carmichael: That sounds like an interesting example, but given recent events, it is not one that I intend to explore on the Floor of the House.

Dr. Evan Harris: That is Slough for you.

Mr. Carmichael: I know not of Slough, other than the references to it in Betjeman's poems.

The choice is clear. We can either accept the Minister's reassurances about guidance to come that will make everything clear, or we can do our jobs as parliamentarians by scrutinising the legislation before us. We cannot do both.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. It is clear that many hon. Members would like to contribute to the debate. Time is limited, so may I make a plea that contributions be brief?
31 Jan 2006 : Column 222

Mr. Winnick: I will certainly be brief. On Report on 11 July 2005, I said that I supported what the Government intended to do, but had certain reservations. To some extent, my reservations were being echoed by Rowan Atkinson and others who were saying that if the Bill were passed, it would be difficult to criticise religion. I believe that the Government should take that matter very seriously. I have no religion myself—I am virtually a lifelong non-believer—but it goes without saying that I believe in people's right to practise, or not to practise, a religion. I certainly take the view that religion should be the subject of criticism. That applies to any religion, although it is mainly the Christian religion that is the subject of satire. There is no reason, as I said on 11 July, why Islam, or the Jewish, Hindu or Sikh religions should not face the same ridicule and criticism that the Christian religion has faced over the past 25 years or so. I am pleased with the Government's supplementary provisions—I know that they will not satisfy the critics because, frankly, nothing will, given that they are largely opposed to the measure—which make it perfectly clear that someone is not guilty of an offence unless they are

Moreover, the provisions state that

To a large extent, the Government have tried to meet the criticism of those of us who were concerned that Rowan Atkinson had a valid point. He may not be satisfied, as critics are generally not satisfied, but the Government have tried to tackle concerns, and they should be congratulated.

In our debate, as on previous occasions, the Government have repeatedly been asked to give examples. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), for instance, wanted them to give examples of offences that are not covered by existing law and the Minister tried to explain the position.

To return to the core issue, why are the Government introducing the legislation? The cynical, simplistic view, certainly of the Opposition, is that it is a tactic to attract Muslim votes. That may be a crude way of putting it, but I do not believe that is the case. Neither do I believe that Muslims will vote Labour simply because of the measure. There is no evidence in the past 40 years that people of Jewish origin or people who practise the Jewish religion said that they would vote Labour because of legislation on incitement to race hatred. Indeed, if we look at the Jewish vote, we can see that it turned to Labour when the lower-middle class and the middle class proper started to vote Labour in 1997. I simply do not believe that the Muslim population will say, "Ah, the Government have passed a measure on the religious hatred. That's a good reason to vote Labour."

The Government are genuinely concerned, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friends today and on previous occasions, about people who are being victimised, spat on, looked on with contempt and spoken of in a certain way simply because they belong to the Muslim faith. That is the reason why they have acted, just as, more than 40 years ago, previous Labour Governments—not Conservative Governments—introduced the measures to which I referred and which were the subject of intense criticism and
31 Jan 2006 : Column 223
opposition by the Conservatives. Reference has been made to political correctness. If political correctness means in effect that people are protected in law against religious or racial abuse and so on, I am very much in favour of it. Whatever it has brought about—there are some distortions and exaggerations—it is better than the situation that existed before those laws were passed.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): On examples, in a previous debate in the House on the subject, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr.   Khan) gave the example of the British National party, which advised its members to put posters in their windows. It knew that it could not get away with saying, "Jews out" or "Sikhs out", but it knew that it could say, "Muslims out". That is a good example. If the BNP is exploiting such a loophole, Members on both sides of the House should take every opportunity to close it.

Mr. Winnick: I fully endorse that. Some Opposition Members—I except Opposition spokesmen, who do not deny that there is a problem but believe that it can be resolved by existing laws, so clearly we disagree—simply do not accept what my hon. Friend said. They do not accept that Muslims are demonised and subject to unacceptable abuse.

Dr. Evan Harris: People who aspire to the hon. Gentleman's track record on anti-racism oppose the measure because they recognise that religion and race are different. The hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) is wrong because, the Norwood case, which has already been cited, shows that such acts are public order offences under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Someone who put up a poster saying, "Muslims out of Britain", with a picture of the twin towers, was prosecuted under that legislation. Sub judice rules do not apply when we are making law, so I can say that Nick Griffin has been prosecuted for his disguised racism using religious words, which is evidence that the existing law bites. I urge the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to reconsider his criticism in this area.

Next Section IndexHome Page