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The arguments that have been advanced for the retention of the blasphemy laws are serious ones. The argument for some kind of chilling effect cuts both ways. If the blasphemy law is repealed, what kind of signal will that send and what will be the reaction of broadcasters and others, who might no longer feel constrained as to what they could say about the Christian faith? What proposals are there to ensure that they treat the Anglican faith respectfully?
parcel of the laws of England.
It may not be as much parcel as it was then, but it is true that Christianity is integral to the constitution. Every day, we have Prayers before Mr. Speaker takes his place in this Chamber. We should pull at the threads of the constitution with care and an hours debate is wholly inadequate to decide a matter of this gravity. If it comes to a vote, I shall personally vote for an abolition of the blasphemy laws, but the matter needs far more careful consideration. In particular, the Church of England is entitled to be consulted properly about the proposal.
I turn now to the amendment to clause 107, which creates the new offence and outlaws incitement to hatred on grounds of peoples sexuality. I do not take the libertarian view of the role of such legislation. The criminal law has a proper role to play in protecting people from harm. Just as we accepted that laws protecting a minority from hatred on grounds of their race were right 30 years ago, so there is a case for similar, if not directly comparable, protection for gay people, who do not choose their sexuality any more than people choose their ethnic origin.
Enormous strides have been made in this country towards tolerance for homosexual people, but it remains the case that gay people can live in fear and can be subject to violent attacks, and that hateful websites and lyrics promote hate against them. I pay tribute to the work of Stonewall in drawing attention to that. We would all agree that such incitement to violence is wrong, and I believe that there is a role for the criminal law in outlawing it. My colleagues on the Front Bench supported in general terms
We supported the principle in general terms in Committee. However, such legislation needs very careful drafting, especially when it comes to scope. While clause 107 is more tightly drafted than some fearedit is limited to intentional acts and threatening words, not merely abusive or insulting wordsit remains unclear what words and behaviour would be caught by the offence. I believe that Church groups are right to seek clarity on that point.
Amendment No. 1 does not seek to exempt expressions of dislike, insult or abuse of gay people. It relates only to conduct. The question before us is whether criticism of such conduct should be a matter for the criminal law. In my view, it should not. None of Stonewalls examples of hateful words against gay people would fall within the scope of that defence. The examples that it gives criticise not conduct, but people. We have to beware of clumsy police investigations and the chilling effect of the law. There is an important balance to be achieved between free speech, including what Stonewall rightly calls temperate comment, which it agrees should not be outlawed, and the protection of a minority from harm.
ought to know...what belongs to laws, and what manners alone can regulate. To these...politicians may give a leaning, but they cannot give a law.
Hatred towards gay people has no place in a civilised society, but the mark of a civilised society is that, except where harm is done, people are free and have freedom of expression. I would not support amendment No. 1 if I thought it weakened gay peoples protection from incitement to hateful violence, but I do not believe that it does so weaken it; I believe that it helpfully clarifies the law. That is why I will support amendment No. 1.
Maria Eagle: I welcome the opportunity to make the Governments position clear on the two issues that we have dealt with in the debate on this group of amendments. In speaking to new clause 1, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) set out in some detail the case for getting rid of the blasphemy laws, helped by interventions from Members of all parties. The issue has been around for many years. As he said, as long ago as 1985 the Law Commission recommended that the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel be abolished. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has given quotations from eminent lawyers and others that go even further back, which shows that the issue was around even before then. We can therefore agree that the issue has been debated at great length.
I agree with the many hon. Members who put their names to new clause 1 that it is high time that Parliament reached a settled conclusion on the issue. We accept that the offences have largely fallen into desuetude. The last prosecution for blasphemy was in 1977, in the case of Whitehouse and Gay News Ltd, as Members will recall. It follows that there have been no cases since the Human Rights Act 1998. The idea that the offences appear to be moribund was reinforced by the High Courts decision on 5 December 2007 that the Theatres Act 1968 and the Broadcasting Act 1990
prevent the prosecution of a theatre, the BBC or another broadcaster for blasphemous libel. That was the result of a case brought by Christian Voice in response to the play Jerry Springer: The Opera. I understand that it is seeking leave to appeal.
Against that background, I can say that we have every sympathy for the case for formal abolition. However, we believe it necessary to consult the Anglican Church before bringing forward a provision that particularly affects it. That is what we are now doing urgently. Subject to that consultation, which I can assure hon. Members will be short and sharp, the Government intend to table amendments in another place to achieve the aims of new clause 1.
Maria Eagle: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I shall move on, without further ado, to amendment No. 1, which was spoken to by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin). The Opposition appear to have changed their position since Committee, when the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) put forward his own, well-constructed version of a clause that would achieve what clause 107 has achieved. It did not include an equivalent to the amendment, so that is an interesting nuance in their position.
John Bercow: I put it to the hon. Lady that amendment No. 1, whatever the intention of its proposers, is entirely superfluous. What we are talking about in clause 107 is intentional acts and threatening language. The clause is clear and explicit; it does not require diluting. It should stand as it is.
Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is correct and is assisting me greatly. The reason the Government oppose amendment No. 1 and would have done so had it been tabled in Committee is that the offence as drafted in clause 107 seeks, for the purposes of making sure that we properly protect freedom of speech, to pitch the offence at the highest level. So we are not talking about insulting words or behaviour. We are talking about threatening words or behaviour intended to incite hatred against a group of people on the basis of their sexuality. That is very narrow and very clear.
Although I appreciate the concerns expressed by many of those who have been quoted, they evidently have not read the Committee proceedings. We believe that clarity is preserved in the clause as it stands.
Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am particularly grateful to her for rushing through her own amendments earlier to try and ensure greater debate, although the Governments role in the amount of time that they have given us today is a shambles.
Already there have been three high-profile incidents where the police have questioned people such as Iqbal Sacranie, who have done nothing more than express a
religious view. Why should we believe that the amendment is not necessary to make it explicit that that should not be a criminal offence?
Maria Eagle: The matter that the right hon. Lady raises is about proper guidance and training. Those matters will be dealt with once the law is passed. Clarity is what we need in the law, and clause 107, as it is drafted, is clear. It does not need clarifying further. The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton would muddy rather than clarify.
Mr. Grieve: Even though there may be a clarity of intention that will prevent prosecutions from taking place, there is ample evidence that the lack of a saving clause of this kind will cause problems, because the public authorities and the police misinterpret what the law says. The amendment will work effectively and will in no way diminish what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve.
Maria Eagle: Unfortunately I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman says. We have had extensive debate and I stick to my position that we are okay with clause 107 as it stands. I have made the Governments views clear.
(3) The Secretary of State may approve a designation under subsection (2) if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the incidence of prostitution in the proposed zone has contributed to an increase in criminality in the locality.
(5) In subsection (4)(b) payment means any financial advantage, including the discharge of an obligation to pay or the provision of goods and services (including sexual services) gratuitously or at a discount.
(8) A person who is the subject of an order under subsection (4) and who fails to comply with the terms of that order is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale or to a community punishment order or to both.. [Fiona Mactaggart.]
( ) Sections 104 to 106 come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint, provided that the United Kingdom shall have ratified the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings prior to that day..
Fiona Mactaggart: I have seconds to speak to new clause 2. The situation is straightforward. Hundreds of thousands of women have been trafficked, many of them into prostitution in Britain. Others have been forced into prostitution because of drug addiction, grooming
It being seven hours after the commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question s necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].
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