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Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con):
I admit that I have been in a dilemma during much of the passage of the Bill and, at times, I believed that the Government had got it right. For example, I believe that they were probably right about 90 days, and
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I would certainly have votedhad I had the opportunityfor 60 days. Therefore, I looked very carefully at this issue before deciding the appropriate course of action.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) had made the speech that he made today a few years ago, I would have told him to have a week's rest and a pair of aspirin, but today it rang horribly true. That is why I do not believe that the examples he gave were in any way trivial. When we make law in this place, we do not make it in a vacuum. We have to consider not only what we are doing, but the atmosphere in which the law will be implemented. We have to ask whether we have confidence that the implementation of the law will be moderated by the spirit intended, rather than simply carried out according to its letter. We have to ask whether we believe that we live in a state that is moderate, restrained and limited in the way that it intervenes in the name of law.
A few years ago, I would have said that, by and largeeven then I could have thought of a few exceptionswe live in such a state. The reason that I sit on this side of the House is that I believe, both intellectually and emotionally, that the power of the state to intervene in our lives, and the power of its agents to intervene in our lives, should be as limited as is compatible with the right and just functioning of society. Today, I do not believe that we live in such a state.
We have the ludicrous examples of agents of law and order enforcement spending four days in the bushes to catch someone feeding birds. That is a ludicrous example, but it is real. A more worrying example is that the chief constable of Walesnot some misguided Mr. Plodbelieves that it is appropriate to investigate the Prime Minister for making a disobliging comment to his own television set.
Vastly more worrying even than that example, as I said during the progress of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, is that we have seen four or five examples of the police intervening when no crime had been committed or threat uttered but a view had been expressed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) gave another example. Therefore, I ask myself whether I am confident that the Bill, if we pass it today in the form in which the Government have drawn it up, will be applied with the common-sense restraint suggested by the Home Secretary. Given all the evidence that now confronts us on how law and order is being implemented, I do not have that confidence.
I have a dilemma. I appreciate that the Government believe that the other place has redrawn the provision too narrowly and that people who should be caught by the Bill will not be so caught. The Opposition contend that the Government have drawn the provision so widely that many people who should not be caught will be caught. I echo the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash): if possible, we should not look at each other over gun barrels but do a bit of parleying. It seems to me that we are so close in what we want to do that we could achieve a wording that meets the objections of both sides. If we could do that, the issue would not be about who will win and who will lose but
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about making good law to govern our country. I believe strongly that we should make a last-ditch attempt to come up with a wording that meets the objections of both sides.
I have a further dilemma because, in an ideal world, I would like to live in a society in which one could say that Osama bin Laden was the best thing since sliced bread. I would like people to be free to say that and for it to be left to social disapproval and pressure, rather than the blunt instrument of the law, to convince them that they were wrong. However, I accept that in the circumstances that is quite impossible and that 7 July, which the Government were right to invoke, changed things and that there is now a small section of the population who are sufficiently volatile as to be incited to action. Therefore, those who incite them should be answerable under the law even if that means that we have to limit severely the exercising of free speech.
I believe that has to be done and that what the Government are trying to do is right. I believe that we can find a form of wording that will suit us all and convince us all, and that we have a duty to do so. In the last analysis, however, especially after what has happened over the past few months, with the police knocking on people's doors claiming that they have offended against the law when all they have done is express a point of view and with those actions being upheld at the most senior level in the police instead of being derided, I have no confidence that the law will be applied with the moderation and restraint necessary to convince me that we still live in a Britain that prizes freedom above all else.
I am not a million miles from the Government's view, so it is with great reluctance that I do not support the proposed wording. I make this final plea, however: we can get there with mutually agreed wording so let us invoke the procedures that will allow us to do so.
Richard Burden : I am saddened that we have to hold this debate, because I am not sure that it is necessary. When we discussed the matter in Committee, there were big differences and I was one of those who expressed reservations about what the Government were trying to do with the glorification offence.
I still have those reservations. Nevertheless, there was some movement by the Government between Committee and Report and we arrived at a form of words, which was still not perfect but allowed us to postpone discussion of our reservations until next year. Everything has to rely on Lord Carlile's report and in our debates we will have to reach a definition of terrorism that we think makes sense. As a result, I am not sure why the other place felt it so important to make the deletions, but equally I do not understand why the Government feel it so important to reinsert the word "glorification".
I find it difficult to reconcile those comments with the assurances that I and others received today from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that we are not drifting back. I appreciate those reassurances, but I am worried that the focus is starting to turn backcertainly in terms of the signals that are being sent out, although I agree with Ministers that the signals are importantto saying that if somebody says something vile or abhorrent on terrorism, priority will be given to criminalising that utterance rather than working out the most effective way of stopping the actions that the person is glorifying. My opinion about that is stronger than it was in November.
Several people have given examples that are relevant, but easy to understand, such as Nelson Mandela, Chile or Wat Tyler. I want to discuss an example that is difficult and profoundly troubling for all of us. I was one of the international observers at the recent Palestinian elections when Hamas was elected with a parliamentary majority in a free and fair vote. Members of Hamas have been responsible for some appalling attacks that are unquestionably definable as terrorist. We are all agreed about how important it is that the international community make clear our abhorrence of such attacks and what Hamas should do. When I met members of Hamas in Gaza, I told them thatas did some of my hon. Friends. I am told that those conversations played a part, albeit a small one, in convincing members of Hamas to embark on a ceasefire that has saved lives in that part of the world.
I give that example in this debate because commentators are starting to notice that even though Hamas and al-Qaeda are both terrorist, they cannot be classified in the same way. People are starting to notice that although jihadist groups are calling for violence in response to the cartoons, Hamas has called on its supporters to reject suggestions that their objections to the cartoons, which are equally as strong, should involve a violent response. I am not claiming that Hamas has suddenly stopped being terrorist or has stopped glorifying terrorismit has not; it is still a terrorist organisation. However, if a young Muslim in the UK who hears about a Palestinian child being shot by Israeli troopsas happened a couple of weeks agosays that he supports Hamas and that Palestinians should take up arms against Israel, I question whether the right thing for us to do would be to criminalise him and threaten him with imprisonment, rather than telling him that he is wrong and why.
From all my involvement in the issue, whether it be talking to people in the middle east or in the UK, I know that to respond by immediate criminalisation of such a young Muslimsending out those signalsis much more likely to win recruits for terrorism than to win people away from it.
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