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Mr. Clarke: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has decided not to join the criticism of the police that some parts of the media have made. There have been many occasions, including May day and football protests, when arrests have been made not immediately but subsequently. As I said, the police and prosecuting authorities are entirely right to examine the evidence in detail before deciding how best to proceed. Of course, I accept what he says about the importance of the implications of decisions taken on the matter. I assure him and the House that I am keeping in close contact with the situation.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay attention to the question of incitement to violenceand also, I would say, incitement to hatred. Freedom of speech has conventionally been proscribed in such areas for good reason, and that is why it is important to illustrate the merit of having the necessary legislation on the statute book, including the Terrorism Bill and its proposed new offence of the encouragement and glorification of terrorism. I draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that the Bill returns to the House on 15 February. Given the public position that the right hon. Gentleman has taken, I hope that Conservative Members will think long and hard about whether they need to revise their attitude to the offences in the Bill and support the Government's aim of getting it on to the statute book as quickly as possible.
More generally, it is important to reinforce the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the need to build a tolerant society and to stand firmly and strongly against incitement to violence and hatred, so I hope that the whole House will do just that.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab):
I welcome what my right hon. Friend and others said about the need to prosecute clear breaches of the law. Does he agree that the whole sorry episode illustrates the deep and worrying confusion in our society about the boundaries of what causes offence, the ways in which free speech needs to be responsibly exercised, and the ways in which different cultures can have very different takes on apparently similar issues? Does he accept that we need the Government to take the lead on issues of
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integration so that everyone in this country understands the common rules of engagement and civic behaviour? This is not simply a policing matter, and most of the issues will be dealt with in other ways.
Mr. Clarke: I very much agree with my right hon. Friend, especially on the question of addressing integration in the way he suggests. I say againit is important to be clear about thisthat this country realises not only that freedom of speech and expression are absolutely essential to our national life, but that judgment, taste, courtesy, circumstance and respect means that there is no obligation to say or do something that gratuitously offends or provokes simply because there is a right to do so. One of the strengths of our society is the fact that most people, in general, weigh up the consequences of what they do before they act. However, beyond those matters, the House has consistently acknowledged that, in certain circumstances, it is appropriate to place legal restrictions on absolute freedom of expression. That is the case for incitement to violence, as has been said, and for certain aspects of incitement to hatred. I think that it is also the case for the incitement or glorification of terrorism. Those circumstances are the bounds beyond which absolute freedom of speech cannot be expressed. Parliament must address those matters, so my right hon. Friend's suggestions are helpful.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I accept what the Home Secretary says about the operational nature of many decisions taken about Friday's demonstration, but does he accept that the House deserves to be told, in the fullness of time, the reasons for those decisions and the level at which they were taken? Were they taken as a result of a policy decision, or taken at ground level by the senior officer in charge of policing the demonstration? Will the Home Secretary undertake to inform the House of those matters at the earliest available opportunity?
It is accepted that many of those who were quick to criticise the police for making no arrests at the weekend would doubtless have been even to quicker to criticise if arrests had been made that inflamed a highly volatile situation. Does the Home Secretary accept that it is essential that there is a full inquiry and that prosecutions follow, provided there is sufficient evidence to justify them and that the CPS and, perhaps, the Attorney-General feel that that is in the public interest?
Finally, do not these events illustrate the wisdom of the position taken by this House last week on the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill? The decision by these newspapers to publish the cartoons was almost certainly unwise, but it should never have been made illegal.
Mr. Clarke: On the final point, the decision whether to publish the cartoons would not, in my view, have been affected by the Bill. The issue to which the hon. Gentleman refers is one of blasphemy, not of incitement to hatred, which is addressed in that Bill.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab):
Does my right hon. Friend agree that some Muslim extremists are poisoning the atmosphere
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in this country, in what has been a great multicultural society? There has been a great achievement by the Asian community, with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims working with the rest of the community. What these extremists are doing is destroying the fundamental fabric of what has been achieved. Will the Home Secretary call in moderate Muslims and ask them to demonstrate publicly in the same spirit as those other people were demonstrating, to show that they have nothing to do with what those people were doing on Friday? The grotesque, inflammatory language that they used was not part and parcel of this society.
Mr. Clarke: I agree. Perhaps I should reinforce the point that I made earlier: the leadership of all parts of the Muslim community has expressed exactly the sentiments set out by my hon. Friend. I do not need to call in the leaders of the Muslim community to make that point because they have been doing so, and I am confident that they will continue to do so very strongly.
Perhaps I can make one other point in response to the question. My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that there are forces in this country, including within the Muslim community, who seek to weaken and damage the democratic fabric of our society. That is why the Terrorism Bill that is now before Parliament contains proposals on proscription of certain organisations that set out to do that. We are widening the criteria for proscription precisely to address the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I hope that those considerations, too, will have the support of the House when we come to look at the Terrorism Bill in the round.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): The behaviour of the police in the next few weeks will help us to define whether our tolerance has slipped to become licence for a small minority, and we will watch very carefully to see how they proceed.
Has the Home Secretary had any conversations with his colleagues in the Foreign Office? It is absolutely clear from all events that the behaviour of some middle eastern Governments in fomenting, stirring up and creating even worse elements of hatred over the last three or four days should be approached and dealt with publicly. After all, those Governments have been the sponsors of some of the worst cartoons, showing Israelis in absolutely the worst light, with Jewish flags flying from concentration camp photographs. That was quite outrageous, but nothing was ever done. Will the Home Secretary please now urge his colleagues to make very strong representations, and public ones at that?
Mr. Clarke: It is for that reason that I made remarks in my initial statement supporting the Danish Government against the attacks that they are experiencing from a number of countries. Yes, I have talked about the matter with colleagues in the Foreign Office, and yes, I can give the House the assurance that strong representations are being made in the direction to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab):
Does the Home Secretary agree that if sections of the Muslim community had sought to demonstrate peacefully against the war in Iraq or what I believe to be the excesses of the so-called war on terror,
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some of us in the House would have supported them, and the entire House would accept that they had an absolute right to do it? But to stage a demonstration that is a clear incitement to violence in an attempt to impose censorship on others is quite a different thing. Difficult as it may be, the test of a society's commitment to freedom of speech, which I think is particularly important in the multicultural society that we have today, is not just our willingness to defend people who say things that we agree with, but our willingness to defend those who say things with which we profoundly disagree.
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