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Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): This is one of those Bills whose face is liberalism, but whose heart is oppression. The society in which we now live is unrecognisable from the freedom that we knew only a few years ago. We are not in danger of being shanghaied off to the Lubyanka, but we are in danger of the police knocking on the door or ringing us up and starting an investigation against us not on the basis of what we have allegedly done, or of threats that we have allegedly uttered, but merely on the basis of a view that we have expressed.

There have been some ludicrous examples and some dangerous examples. I do not often stand up for the Prime Minister and I shall not make a habit of it, but perhaps the most ludicrous occurred when the Prime Minister made a rather disobliging comment about the Welsh to his own television set. It was deemed to be worthy of investigation by the North Wales constabulary. You could not make it up, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it actually happened. Then, there was the much more serious example involving Lynette Burrowes, who is a respected children's writer. She expressed the view that she had reservations about the adoption of children by same-sex couples. That same view was freely expressed by Members in this House, and without any danger of police proceedings, when we debated the law in question. [Interruption.] My colleagues are right to say that we are okay—that we are protected. However, Lynette Burrowes had the police on the phone to her.

There is an even worse example. A couple living in Lancashire asked their local council if they could display Christian literature—they did not say anything in public—alongside material from the council promoting civil partnerships. If the council had simply said no, that would have been one thing. Did it? No, it called in the police. The couple were interviewed in their own home by the police for an hour and 20 minutes. That should frighten any Member who is seriously concerned for the liberties of this nation. There is the further example, often quoted tonight, of Sir Iqbal Sacranie. He did nothing more than elucidate Muslim teaching, yet he was immediately investigated by the police because somebody made a complaint.
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7.15 pm

All those examples have one thing in common. Someone somewhere decided to take offence at what had been said. That person made a complaint to the police, who believe—erroneously, in my view—that it is sufficient for a complaint to be made for it to have to be investigated. If they apply this Bill's provisions in that way, there will be an immensely oppressive impact not only on Christians and Muslims, but on anybody who says anything that somebody else decides is worthy of police investigation.

I would go along with such a provision if we narrowed it to intent, because nobody is going to say that one should "intend" to stir up religious hatred. But this is not about intent; it is about subjective judgments such as abuse and insults. As I have said before, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) should be allowed to say, if he wants to—he has mellowed a bit recently, so he might not want to—that I have signed up with the Antichrist. He should be allowed to say, if he wants to, that when I go into a church in which there are statues, I am practising idolatry. He should be allowed to say, if he wants to, that when I take part in the sacrifice of the mass, I am committing blasphemy. He can say all those things, and yes, I will find them insulting, but I am 58 and I have often been insulted in my life. I have no doubt whatever that I will be insulted again, but I shall not think that the remedy for feeling insulted is to go off whingeing to a policeman.

It is regrettable that we have only three hours for this important debate. I accept wholly that there have been previous stages of this Bill, but the other place has made some very important amendments that need careful study. We already live in a society in which things that would have been unthinkable a few years ago are a daily reality: a society in which, if one simply speaks to a viewpoint, one can end up on the wrong end of a police investigation. That is not the Britain that I want to live in, and this Bill makes it more likely that that effect will be increased, not decreased.

Dr. Tony Wright: As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I have genuinely worked hard in trying to support the Bill, even up until yesterday evening. If today's vote was on whether the Minister is a good man, we would have no need for a Division. If the question was whether his assurances can be trusted, there would be no need for a Division. If the question was whether there are good intentions behind the Bill, there would be no need for a Division.

It is a source of regret, by the way, that we have to discuss such issues on the basis of whipped party votes. Whatever view the House comes to, the outcome would have far more legitimacy in the eyes of the public and of all the groups affected by this legislation if they could feel that we had reached it on the basis of genuinely open judgments of our own. We, as a House, do ourselves a huge disservice when we treat such issues in this way.

A central issue that I and others have wrestled with has run through the entire debate surrounding the Bill from the very outset: is it possible to give additional protection to believers for the reasons that have been adduced, while at the same time avoiding giving unwarranted protection to beliefs?
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I started off by thinking that it would be almost impossible to do that. I wanted the ability to say that I hate religious bigots. I do hate religious bigots. Hatred means intense loathing. I have intense loathing of religious bigots. In fact, I want to go around urging other people to hate religious bigots. The world would be a better place if we all hated religious bigots, and I am instinctively anxious about a piece of legislation that makes it in some respects harder, and in other respects illegal, to go around saying that I hate religious bigots.

However, I was prepared to examine the case to see whether we could achieve a balance. When I asked the Minister about these things before, he assured me, and he has done his best to redeem the pledge, that he would try to find the correct balance and to insert a savings clause in the Bill guaranteeing the free speech that we were worried about. In the immensely difficult task of squaring the circle, he was helped hugely by what the other place has done.

The Lords delivered to us a Bill which, if it did not completely square the circle, did it as well as it was humanly possible to do. I would have been very happy to support it on that basis. We would have fulfilled our manifesto commitment, but we would have done it in a way that did not damage the traditions of free speech that are essential to our society. I regret the fact that the Government have not felt it possible to accept what the other place has done. They have put into the Bill a savings clause, but they have done that in a way that cuts it away again. That is the difficulty.

I am a rebel, but a very reluctant rebel. I did not want to oppose the Bill, because the Government are introducing it for the right reasons, but we should be wary about crossing a boundary. Whichever view people take on what we are doing, we are crossing a boundary tonight as we move from believers to beliefs. I do not feel comfortable crossing that boundary. I do not feel comfortable giving protections to belief systems, which is essentially what we are doing. In doing that, we are cutting against what we think is the tradition of an open society.

The only values that we should seek to protect in law are the values that protect our democracy itself. One of those values—the key value—is the ability to attack other people's belief systems with all the vigour that we can command. In so far as we depart from that and depart from it knowingly, we do damage to the democratic system itself.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): It is a great privilege to be called to speak after my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). In their speeches, both were tremendous advertisements for independence of mind.

It is independence of mind that is under assault in the Bill before the House this evening. If the Government get their way and their amendments are carried, we will see not only a significant curtailment of freedom of speech in this country, but perhaps the most significant undermining of religious liberty since 1688. I mention the 17th century advisedly, because that was the last time in this country when questions of political and
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religious strife put lives at risk on the mainland of the United Kingdom. During that period of the 17th century, one of our greatest writers, Milton, even at that time of strife, made a heartfelt plea for liberty in his work, "Areopagitica". Milton pointed out that truth did not need the law to suppress falsehood in order to prevail. In open debate, those who are confident of their beliefs will not want the state to intervene on their side, because the confidence in their beliefs will be enough to sustain them.

It is significant that almost all the religious groups in this country which are organised and respectable are opposed to the Bill. They have sufficient confidence in the strength of their own beliefs not to pray the state in aid. It is striking that there are only one or two significant exceptions to that rule. One of them has been the Muslim Council of Britain. Its head, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, has throughout his career been a doughty fighter against prejudice against those whom he represents.

I would happily acknowledge that there is much that can be done by Government and by all politicians to fight prejudice and racism against Muslims and other minorities, but I suspect that in the past few weeks Sir Iqbal and others have begun to realise how dangerous it is to criminalise free speech in this country. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald pointed out, Sir Iqbal himself was on the receiving end of the attentions of the police for words that he uttered on Radio 4—words that I find offensive, but which I believe that he has every right to utter on whatever platform is given to him. Because of that intervention in Sir Iqbal's right to speak freely, we can all see the dangers of criminalising speech.

Sir Iqbal was referred to earlier by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) in the context of the debate about "The Satanic Verses". It is appropriate that we consider for a moment the controversy that surrounded the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel. If we imagine that the law that the Government intend to pass today were in place then, I submit that "The Satanic Verses" would never have been published by Penguin.

Let us look at proposed new section 29K and the references to abusive and insulting behaviour and to recklessness, and ask ourselves this question: if we had been executives at Penguin and had read that text and calculated the effect that it was likely to have on the Muslim community in this Britain, would we have calculated that it would abuse the Muslim faith? We would certainly have made that calculation. Would we have known that individual Muslims would be insulted? Of course we would have recognised that. Would we have known that, by publishing, we could have been accused of recklessness? We would have been aware that that accusation would be flung at us.

Would we therefore have taken the risk of publishing? I suspect that we would not, and that, to me, would have been not just a loss for freedom of speech, but an attack on the creative spirit and a loss of what makes us a distinctive and cherishably free country. That chill factor, which would have applied to "The Satanic Verses" if the legislation had been in place, has been mentioned by several hon. Members. It is a worrying curtailment of liberty and an ominous extension of state power.
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There are two other areas that I shall cite briefly where the state extends its power in an ominous way in the Bill. First, there is an unwarranted and ominous extension of Executive power in the reliance that the Minister places on guidance to the prosecuting authorities and to the police. As nearly every hon. Member who has referred to the guidance has pointed out, we all have complete faith in the Minister to frame guidance that would be sensible and proportionate, but whatever our beliefs about the immortality of the Minister's soul, we know that he will not be permanently in office. We cannot trust future Ministers and future Governments necessarily to frame guidance that will be proportionate and correct. It is quite wrong for us to trust the Executive to decide what prosecutions could and should be brought in the future. We should decide now and write that into the Bill as we discuss it.

There is one final area where the state arrogates to itself unwarranted power in the Bill—that is, in the very definition of what constitutes religion. It is wrong that the state should be able to extend to any group of believers a privileged status by saying that they constitute a fit and proper religion. If we consider recent reports about what happened in the Navy when an individual officer claimed for himself, on the basis that he was a Satanist, a safe religious space in which to enact his rituals, we can see that the present Government and future Governments may extend to all sorts of cults and other unsavoury groups the protection that is in the Bill.

I have no hesitation in saying, safeguarded by privilege as I am, that I regard Scientology as an evil cult founded by an individual purely in the interests of enriching himself and sustained by those who are either wicked or wayward. But if the Bill were to pass and I were to repeat those comments outside this House as an ordinary civilian, I would lay myself open to prosecution simply for having sought to point out the dangers of a fraudulent organisation masquerading as a religion.

I have pointed to three dangers—three extensions of state power—which are three very good reasons why I believe that the Government should withdraw their amendments and we should accept the wisdom of the other place.

7.30 pm

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