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Mr. Winnick: I do not question, any more than he does mine, the hon. Gentleman's total commitment to anti-racism. That goes without saying, but the Government disagree with him, as I do, because there are certain forms of abuse and so on that are not covered by existing law. The argument that there is a difference between race and religion is true to some extent. Someone cannot change their race. I have previously given the example of Disraeli, who may have been a Christian many times over but in many people's eyes remained a Jew because he was born a Jew. However, we should accept that, although we can change our religion, for many people, especially among ethnic minorities, religion is something that they hold dear. We cannot simply say that someone can choose their religion, as we must recognise that the religion they follow is fundamental to their personality and their way of life.
I said that I would be brief, so I shall conclude. I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that he may well be correct. In practice, his criticisms may be such that we may regret what I hope we will do tonight. I do not believe that that will be the
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case. I repeat that all those who criticised race legislation and who argued that, by passing the Race Relations Act 1976 and incitement to race hatred measures, we would undermine the traditional liberties and freedoms of our countries were wrong. Just as I believe that they were wrong, I believe that those who oppose what we are doing now will prove to be wrong.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Much of the time in the House, Members are obliged to resist the temptation to indulge in overstatement. Tonight, we must resist the temptation to understate the case, because this is a matter of great seriousness that goes to the very heart of the nature of our society and the freedoms that we enjoy.
The Lords amendments are an attempt to improve the Bill, or perhaps an attempt to limit the damage that it may do. They go to the very heart of the matter. The nub of our consideration concerns the essence and expression of belief. That men hold strong belief is not itself virtuous. As has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, some beliefs are repugnant, but beyond such repugnant views, it is arguable that belief in anything is better than belief in nothing. The absence of purposeful passionthe ugly nihilism that leads men to murder carelessly or to abuse without conscienceis not merely the absence of goodness but its antithesis. When I am asked whether I detest cruelty, whether I abhor mindless destructiveness and whether I hate evil, I reply, "Yes, I do." In that, I am inspired by the Bible, which tells me that I must
I must hate wrong actions and wrong ideas. Those who flew the aeroplanes into New York's twin towers believed that they died martyrs' deaths and that they would go straight to paradise. Such evil ideas are not matters of indifference. They should be hatedindeed, they must be hated, so that society remains free. If I promote hatred of those ideas, someone will undoubtedly allege that I am either intentionally or recklessly promoting hatred of people.
With the alacrity and perspicacity for which my hon. Friend is renowned, he has anticipated my next point. The only people who will be free from the culture of fear, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) painted a picture in his excellent appraisal from the Front Bench, are hon. Members, who are protected by parliamentary privilege. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said, this House will be the only place in the kingdom where we can speak our minds. The distinction between the proper exposition of hatred of evil and the Minister's case on recklessness and intent is so narrow that it is impossible to draft amendments adequately to deal with it, but at least the Lords have attempted to modify the excesses of the Bill.
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The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that many people do not believe that we need a Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, and he was right. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have touched on the reason why many of us believe that such a Bill is unnecessary: there is already law to protect people from the sort of thing that he fears. As has been said repeatedly, statute already exists to protect people and, since 2001, it has had a religious element, too.
If we believe that it is right to hate wrong, and if we believe that it is right to express that hatred, we may well fall foul of the new legislation. Most people who have strong beliefs want to express them and those who have strong political or religious beliefs have a mission to express them and, indeed, to convert. Some people will undoubtedly perceive that as insulting or offensive, while others will undoubtedly perceive it as a threat. Such people will go to the police, who will find themselves in the impossible situation of having to make theological or political judgments on matters about which they may know very little.
The freedom to express strong belief is not unlimitedthose hon. Members who know me well know that I would never make the case for unlimited freedombut freedom is best constrained by manners, courtesy, custom and convention. Occasionally, freedom must be constrained by law, but it should always be done with the utmost caution. The Minister, who is an honourable and decent man, should exercise great caution tonight in making his argument and directing Government Members.
The Lords amendments form a perfectly reasonable compromise and I and other hon. Members cannot understand why the Government do not simply accept them. The Government's manifesto pledge to create a religious hatred offence would be fulfilled and they could return to those with whom they no doubt brokered a deal and tell them that they have delivered on their promise. Furthermore, Rowan Atkinson, Justice, the Christian Institute, the National Secular Society, the Muslim Association of Britain and many other groups that have lobbied against the Bill would go away if not exactly happy, then at least relieved that the scope of the offence had been circumscribed.
It is notable that many religious and secular believers do not seek the legal protection that the Government seem so enthusiastic to give them. That is because the new offence is like an unguided missileno one can be entirely sure who it will hit. That is why an unlikely alliance of writers, comedians, lawyers, secular groups and religious interests are combined in their opposition to the Government's proposal. Interestingly, none of those groups has been deterred by what the Government claim is a compromise and none has been put off their course by the Government amendments.
Like many hon. Members, that broad coalition is not satisfied by the Government's proposals and is less satisfied by the Minister's lukewarm assurances that our safety lies in guidance or legal interpretation. When a Minister relies on that argument at the Dispatch Box, we know that he is on weak ground, however good a man and however well intentioned he may be. If I may be
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allowed a brief aside in a serious speech, any man with a direct relationship with "Postman Pat" must be a decent fellow.
The Government have floundered on two particular matters, which I shall briefly reprise before sitting down so that other hon. Members can contribute. First, the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) pointed out that it is impossible to understand how the Government can reconcile recklessness, which is extreme carelessness, with intent or intention, which implies a deliberate decision to act.
Mr. Leigh: In the past, recklessness has always been used to deal with a mischief that has already taken place, such as grievous bodily harm. For the first time, recklessness will deal with a mischief that has not yet taken place, which is a new concept in British law.
Secondly, the person in the world of religion and politics who has not suffered abuse or insults and who has not accepted that that is part of the package is not being entirely truthful or does not exist.
The Lords amendments are reasonable. It is a widely held view that it is the Government who are acting recklessly and so I hope that the whole House will support the Lords amendments and oppose the Government.
Mark Fisher: We are into the last half hour of several months of debate on the Bill, and several problems and difficulties remain unresolved. In a brave attempt to explain the Government's position, the Minister has tried to address those problems, but particularly in relation to proposed new section 29K, where the language is opaque and the argument circular, his reassurances are not substantial enough to justify supporting the Government.
The Minister has placed a great deal of stress on the guidance, but as has been said, these laws are very serious and the offences carry a seven-year prison sentence. Guidance does not have the force of law, and we can be concerned only with what is on the face of the Bill, which will be the law of the land.
The Minister has also placed a lot of confidence in the fact that the courts will decide such matters. However, I am surprised that there have not been more references in the debate to the state of Victoria in Australia, where similar legislation has been on the statute book for several years, but the courts are asking the Government to relieve them of it. Our courts are set up as criminal and civil courts, not as theological courts capable of making such distinctions. They will be asked to do an impossible job: to make judgments that they have neither the competence nor the will to undertake.
The Minister said that we should leave such matters to the good sense of juries, but by the time that we get to the jurieswho will probably take the same view that the jurists in Australia are taking: that they do not want to be involved because they do not have the necessary competencethe damage will have been done by what has been referred to tonight as the "chill" factor. The damage is done as soon as an offence is reported; that is when the suppression of views takes place.
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Nobody disputes that the Government have the perfectly good and fair intention of creating a level playing field in these matters. However, in not accepting the idea of creating a "negative" level playing field by abolishing the law of blasphemythe Minister offered no explanation as to why they did not accept that ideathey may, I fear, have done exactly the reverse of their intention. The level playing field that they have created will consist of mischievous prosecutions and accusations. All Muslim organisations in this country, other than the Muslim Council of Britain, recognise that this legislation is deeply flawed, and almost all Muslims in this country understand that they will be as much the victims of it as anybody else. There will be a rash of mischievous and extremist accusations, attempted prosecutions and reports to the police. We will have a level playing field, but it will be one of misery.
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