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6 May 2008 : Column 656

Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman may be prepared to concede that the Wingrove case took place in 1996, which is not that long ago, and that the use of the word “nowadays”, which he interpolated into the comments that he quoted, is only a reflection of the fact that the Joint Committee has an extreme tendency towards a number of decisions with which some of us do not agree. His remarks demonstrate that we are falling into a deeper pit than he is willing to recognise.

Dr. Harris: I do not want to be diverted to the merits of the judgments of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but I think that its Chairman—the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is present—would recognise, and the Government would concede, that we have correctly forecast the judgments of both our own courts and the European Court on various matters related to terrorism offences.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked whether it was wrong to insult religious views. I have to say that I do not think it is wrong, although it may be inadvisable, impolite or offensive. The hon. Gentleman said that if his religion was insulted he would expect that to be covered by the religious hatred laws, and expressed concern about the possibility that Christianity would not be covered. However, the whole point of what we struggled for during the passage of the religious hatred laws—I think he was on my side in that instance—was that it did not cover offence, insult and abuse. The behaviour in question had to be threatening, and be intended to stir up religious hatred. I find it regrettable that Members who in the past have stood up for freedom of expression and freedom to insult, and against the creation of a right not to be offended, are sliding back into the lazy view that something ought to be illegal simply because it is offensive.

Dr. Julian Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but I do not think he has addressed the concern felt by many of us about the issue of double standards. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was that if people were to insult the minority religions as Christianity is insulted, they would be dragged before the courts. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that that will not happen, or simply that it is wrong when it does happen? How is Christianity to be given equivalent protection?

Dr. Harris: I ask for patience, because I can deal with only one point at a time. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald spoke of an unlevel playing field. In an intervention, I tried to suggest that we should ensure that our law and its policing enabled people, if they so chose, to make remarks opposing the religion of another group of people, while not inciting hatred or using threatening language against the people themselves.

I believe that the right hon. Lady—and I would be right behind her, figuratively—should be entitled to demonstrate opposite a mosque in the way that she described, and that the police should protect her right to do so. If there is an onslaught against her—a term used earlier, either by her or by someone else—that is the offence. The offence is not her expression of her view, but the fact that people are far too sensitive and
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willing to take to the streets. We saw the same situation with the Danish cartoons. The prosecutions, when they eventually came, were rightly for the unlawful overreaction of the people who had taken offence. I have no doubt that they were offended, but they have no right in that regard, and their reactions must be within the law of the land. I believe that we can achieve a level playing field with maximum freedom of expression.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Is the hon. Gentleman’s case not the opposite to that made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) from his party’s Front Bench? The hon. Member for Cambridge said that it would send a bad signal to society if we stood up for a continuing law of blasphemy, and that it would send a bad signal to certain members of society if we said that it was not a good idea to have extreme theocracies in countries such as Iran, whereas the hon. Gentleman is saying that it would somehow aid social cohesion for my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to stand outside mosques carrying placards bearing insulting messages. I detect a certain tension between the Front and Back Benches of the Liberal Democrat party.

Dr. Harris: I do not accept the words that the hon. Gentleman ascribes to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). I am not arguing that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald ever aids social cohesion, intends to do so or does so as a consequence of her actions; just that she should have the right to express a religious view against someone else’s religious view and that people should have the same right to take issue with her religious view. That is free speech in a democracy. It has nothing to do with secularisation and I am astonished that the Conservatives are not four-square behind that.

David Howarth: I intervene only to say that if my hon. Friend ever hears me use the phrase “send a signal” he will be entitled to insult me as much as he likes.

Dr. Harris: I look forward to that, if it ever happens.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) argued that there was a symbolic value in the blasphemy law and that getting rid of it would, first, send the wrong signal and, secondly, undermine our traditions. But exactly the same arguments could be made against striking from the statute book or abolishing from common law an offence that would result in the burning of someone at the stake. It is part of our “proud tradition” in this country that people guilty of apostasy or heresy were burned at the stake. I am sure that there were people in the 17th, 18th or 19th century who said, “Of course, we would not use it anymore but it is sending out the wrong signal if we get rid of it from the statute book.”

The hon. Member for New Forest, East asked whether our having a blasphemy law prevented us from making points to other countries that had far stricter laws on blasphemy and apostasy; he used the example of Pakistan. I think it does. It is more difficult for this country and our diplomats when we have a Christian-only blasphemy
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law to say to the now democratic Pakistan that their Islamic blasphemy laws or Islamic laws on apostasy are misplaced. That was accepted by the co-signatories to the letter that I organised to The Daily Telegraph—they included many religious people—to argue to the Sudan Government in relation to the “teddy bear” case that their having a law against blasphemy was misplaced. We have our own version. Whether or not it is used, that undermined our case.

Dr. Julian Lewis: The hon. Gentleman has been very generous in giving way. Surely the problem with countries such as Sudan or Iran is not that they have blasphemy laws, but that they attach such extreme penalties to them.

Dr. Harris: I understand that there are two parts to any law, unless I missed something in my limited legal education. The first is having someone go through a trial even if there is not much of a penalty at the end. We have already established in relation to the investigation of people such as the Lancashire couple who wanted to put literature in the registry office or, indeed, Lynette Burrows, that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues were saying that just having a police investigation—not even a prosecution—was traumatic enough and could destroy lives. It is not good enough to say that we can still prosecute even if there is not much of a penalty. It is not just about the penalty. I would expect us to have more proportionate and reasonable penalties for all our laws, whether homicide or burglary, than some of the states we seek to advise or criticise.

Finally, something needs to be said about the motivations behind the measure. In the House of Lords, something curious happened. The archbishops, in their joint letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:

this was the rider—

We in the House worked hard to narrowly defeat the Government to ensure that the religious hatred laws did not protect opinion or religion, but only, in clear and narrow cases, individuals from incitement to hatred. I did not for one moment think that those laws would be cited by the Government as something to reassure the archbishops. I am very disappointed that the Minister in the Lords then stated:

that is a reference to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006—

I am disappointed that the Government say to our House when we are debating the religious hatred legislation, “Don’t worry, this isn’t about protecting religious belief,” and then in the House of Lords they imply that blasphemy will be substituted by an effective use of the religious hatred Act. That is not the case; I am confident that the religious hatred legislation will
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not be a substitute, and that the Government were just saying that in the House of Lords to placate the bishops.

Baroness O’Cathain claimed that I was arguing that this was a secularising move. She quoted a letter I wrote to Lords when they were debating this issue:

In fact, however, this is what my letter said in full:

That is an important point.

I do not see why we should have any qualms about trying to secularise the state. There is a difference between that and the view that Richard Dawkins expresses, which is that religious people are wrong. I have never said that in this House; Members can check the record. What people believe is their own business, so far as I am concerned, and religion is a matter for the individual and the home, and for family, church and social clubs. However, there is an argument that the state should be neutral in religious matters—that we should have a secular state.

That is not an argument against people having individual religious views. Many of my best friends—as the cliché goes—have strong religious views, and I respect them. I may or may not share them; I have never discussed my own religious views. I just passionately believe in a secular state.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Would the hon. Gentleman like to put on record his view? Does he believe that personal faith and religion—whatever religion—should be kept behind closed doors and completely private, or does he think that any part of a community’s or person’s religious beliefs can play a part not only in the work place, but in the public sphere?

Dr. Harris: I think that religion is a matter for the individual, the home, the church, the family and social clubs within the local community. I do not believe that there is a role for religious privilege with regard to the state. There is a big difference between a measure that criminalises someone for what they say against a religion and the establishment of the Church. I do not think the establishment of the Church is a good idea—I share my party’s policy—but I also do not think that that is as damaging as threatening to criminalise someone for expressing their point of view even when there is no intention to cause offence, because this is a law of strict liability.

The Government were right finally to put the blasphemy law out of its misery. This is an historic occasion, because this country is in a small way a little more free with this law abolished from our case law.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am a simple sort of chap, and a member of the Church of England. I think I am the first member of the Church of England to speak in support of the maintenance of this law—a view I have come to on balance, not slavishly.

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I start from the premise of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) that this is a Christian country and that we owe everything to our Christian tradition. This nation has been forged and fashioned down the centuries by its Christian tradition. Every Act of Parliament is prefaced by reference to the support of the Lords temporal and spiritual and the Commons assembled. That indicates that our Christian faith has played a hugely important part. Therefore, while I have enjoyed the frivolities of this evening’s proceedings, we should be under no illusions that a serious issue is at stake. I am afraid that I am not interested in the Joint Committee on Human Rights or the European Court of Human Rights; I am interested in my views and beliefs, which are profoundly held and shared by a lot of people in this country.

9.30 pm

There is a message coming through here, particularly from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who treated us to something that was more in the way of a Cambridge union debate than dealing with the practicalities of the concerns of the people of this country. Those of other religions who have come here down the centuries have done so in the full knowledge that this is a Christian country. One of the reasons why they come here is that our Christian faith is a tolerant faith—one that allows mosques to be built and that allows people to observe their traditions, to bring those traditions with them and to practise them. It is a mistake that some of them should now assert that, because they have come here in rather large numbers, they should be entitled to overturn centuries of tradition in this country. That is a mistake that we should resist.

Mr. Cash: Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to give way?

Mr. Howarth: If my hon. Friend is going to be brief, I will give way.

Mr. Cash: I am very grateful. Does my hon. Friend not agree that there was a time when we were intolerant on both sides of the equation, particularly during the Tudor period, but that it was precisely because of our constitutional settlement, which was developed in the 18th century and has led to our parliamentary democracy, that we have been able to combine the virtues that he has described with our parliamentary democracy as a whole?

Mr. Howarth: Yes, I do agree with that, but I am not going back to Tudor times, if my hon. Friend will forgive me; I want to deal with the here and now.

The hon. Member for Cambridge suggested that people less exalted than us are in fear that their Christianity is under threat. He is absolutely right—they do think that, and they are alarmed that the Government of the day appear to be completely preoccupied with minorities and take no account of their genuinely felt concerns. What they are looking for is somebody who is going to stand up for their concerns and articulate them in simple language, saying, “This is a Christian country—this is the way we do it here. My friend, if you don’t like it, go and do it somewhere else.” It is all perfectly straightforward.

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The Minister relied, as Ministers of course do, on the assertion of the Government’s new religion, which is discrimination: anything that is discriminatory is to be resisted, if not completely rejected. Her case is completely destroyed. Of course the law of blasphemy is discriminatory—but then, as was pointed out to her, so is the fact that the Church of England is the established Church. That discriminates against everybody else. It is a discrimination that unless one is a member of the House of Hanover, now the House of Windsor, one cannot ascend to the throne. That discriminates against every Eagle, every Smith, every Howarth in the land. Discrimination is there; it is in our midst. We are discriminating every day of our lives; we discriminate when we go to the shops. The idea that the Government should somehow rest their case on discrimination is a mistake and indicates that they are going down the wrong track.

Furthermore and as has also been pointed out, we have Christian prayers in this place, which you, Mr. Speaker, of course preside over. I have been waiting for the day when there are calls to end this practice. I shall resist that for all the reasons I have just given; we should maintain these traditional prayers.

Mr. Hayes: Will my hon. Friend invite those who have spoken in the opposite cause to the one that he is articulating with such passion to say whether they want to strip this place of all references to Christian faith? I rather suspect that they do. This is a debate between the selfish individualism that lies at the dark heart of liberalism, personified by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and those of us who understand that our shared identity is informed and shaped by our Christian heritage and the reality of our Christian faith.

Mr. Howarth: I wish that my hon. Friend would speak more clearly, so that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) could properly understand. Clearly, this is an undisguised attempt at promoting the case for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

One of the reasons why this is a serious issue is, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) expressed it—he did so articulately, as ever— that some Christians feel under threat. However, the promotion of the Church of England as the established Church in this country is important for other reasons. I can tell him that a Jewish headmistress, whom I was sitting next to at a lunch—I believe that it was for the Conservative Friends of Israel, so a huge number of people attended—said, “It is very important to our school that there continues to be an established Church, because it provides some protection to us in the practising of our religion.” That message must not be forgotten.

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