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Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have made that mistake twice in two days. I apologise for referring to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, who will be sitting on those Benches one day. Last night I referred to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln was in the Chamber. I have made a mistake again today. I apologise to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. I have travelled through Coventry and Birmingham today. I have corrected my error for the record.

Turning to the question of religious discrimination, we do not accept that the European Community should have competence in this field either. The issues surrounding religious discrimination are extremely complex and sensitive. There is no specific legislation in Great Britain covering religious discrimination as such. As yet, there is no evidence of a real problem of discrimination on the grounds of a person's religious beliefs as opposed to his racial or ethnic background.

The Government would be prepared to look at any evidence in this area. But no one yet has presented us with evidence to suggest that existing legislation is inadequate to deal with any mischief which may occur. In the circumstances, we do not see a case for giving the European Community competence to act in that area.

Our strong doubts about European competence in these areas does not mean that we deny the importance of appropriate European level co-operation. On the contrary, I see a key role for co-operation with our European partners. We already work closely together in various fora going beyond the European Union and actively share experience and information.

In the area of tackling xenophobic criminal activity we were very pleased earlier this year to agree the Joint Action on Racism and Xenophobia which marks a significant step forward in tackling racism across Europe. Under the joint action member states will provide evidence to other member states to help convict and punish those committing racist acts; facilitate the search for racist material intended for dissemination in another member state; and provide powers to seize such material.

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As the Government have made clear, we are prepared to legislate to close a loophole in our law. That will enable us to seize racist material produced here which is intended for distribution in other member states. The United Kingdom has also agreed that 1997--as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said--should be designated European Year Against Racism. The Government believe that the European year has the potential to make a valuable contribution to the fight against racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism and will help to highlight the benefits of a diverse society. Plans for the year are still being drawn up, but we are determined that the United Kingdom should play a full and constructive part. We have been greatly heartened by the enormous interest shown in the year by all sections of the community. Countless organisations, large and small, are already planning their own events to mark the year, and this is just as it should be, because tackling racism and prejudice is not just about legislation, important though that is. It is also about winning hearts and minds; promotional and awareness raising activities can make a significant contribution towards this.

The noble Lord, Lord McNair, referred to justice and home affairs. The justice and home affairs pillar of the European Union Treaty operates by unanimity and on an intergovernmental basis. It does not produce Community law but international law agreements or conventions. The Government have agreed to submit proposals, which would require United Kingdom legislation, to be scrutinised by Parliament before they are agreed.

Reference was also made to Starting Point. The Government are aware of the work done by the group of lawyers who produced the Starting Point. We are also aware of the fact that their proposal has been endorsed by certain non-governmental organisations in member states. The fact remains that we are not persuaded by their arguments for the reasons which I have already set out.

Reference was made to EPIC. We have also listened carefully to the arguments put forward by EPIC. Indeed my honourable friend the parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office, Mr. Kirkhope, met a delegation from EPIC earlier in the summer of this year. The delegation included the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. My noble friends and myself wish the noble Baroness a speedy recovery. We miss her presence greatly in this House. EPIC's conclusions were presented to my honourable friend in another place. What was said at the meeting was taken careful note of. We kept that very much in mind while reflecting on this issue.

The noble Lord, Lord McNair, referred to experience in other countries, as did the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. Nobody would seek to deny that discrimination and harassment exist in other member states. Our point is that those matters are best dealt with in the context in which they arise. That is why we believe it should be for each member state to deal with them.

I was asked: why is there reluctance on the part of the Government to introduce a specific law against incitement to religious hatred and against religious

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discrimination? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry said, the situation is extremely complex and sensitive. Of course it is important to explore the issue carefully with all those groups concerned in the matter. We already have comprehensive legislation on race, and the Race Relations Act 1976, again referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, makes discrimination on grounds of race unlawful. The public order law prohibits incitement to racial hatred. We would be prepared to examine any evidence in this area, but nobody has yet presented us with evidence to suggest that the existing legislation is inadequate to deal with any mischief which may occur.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, mentioned the 1993 directive. The European Union has no legislation on race discrimination. It does not have the power to make such a directive. There have been numerous condemnations of racism and xenophobia by the European Union, including by the European Council Heads of Government. The United Kingdom has joined in those declarations and condemnations.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, also asked what the Government have done about racially motivated violence in the United Kingdom. Again, I say unequivocally that the Government are committed to providing strong protection for ethnic minorities against racial violence and harassment. Violent racial attacks are already well covered by the criminal law. In an appeal case, the then Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Taylor--to whom we also send our very best wishes--stated:

    "it is perfectly possible for the court to deal with any offence of violence which has a proven racial element in it, in a way which makes clear that that aspect invests the offence with added gravity and therefore must be regarded as an aggravating feature".
What is dealt with in that situation is the actual offence; however, if the motivation for the offence is racial hatred, that becomes an aggravating feature. We have found in relation to sentencing in the courts--and it has been very impressive--that that aspect has been taken into account and therefore the sentence has been all the more severe as a result of the aggravating feature.

Where there are gaps in the law, we have acted. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 introduced an offence to tackle racial harassment and give the police greater powers to deal with racially inflammatory material. Our proposals on stalking may also help. They

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will provide protection in cases where victims are threatened or harassed. It will not be necessary to prove intention in those cases.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked whether British citizens of ethnic minority origin are subjected to harassment and even violence when they travel in the European Union. This point is not about discrimination; it is about racially motivated criminal activity. That is completely unacceptable. We believe that the criminal law of the member states should be able to deal with it. This is an area in which a good deal of co-operation already takes place between the member states under the third pillar of the European Union: co-operation in the field of justice and home affairs. It is under that third pillar that we believe this issue belongs. It encourages the highest possible degree of co-operation between member states.

We should be wary of thinking that there are any easy answers in this area. The good community relations that we enjoy in the United Kingdom are very precious. They are the fruits of years of hard work. We owe much to the basic good sense and decency of the people of this country. If we wish to maintain and improve those relations, we should tread very carefully indeed.

This debate has been short but useful. This will go on record as another subject that this House addresses very seriously.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will she accept that Northern Ireland has legislation against religious discrimination and that there is in function there a Fair Employment Agency dealing with the employment aspects of religious discrimination? Is she also aware that in England many Moslem groups would like to see that kind of legislation extended to this jurisdiction?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am certainly aware of what the noble Lord describes as pertaining in Northern Ireland. I am also aware that we have a raft of legislation which gives employees in this country of any race or background a good deal of protection. Given the shortness of the notice of the noble Lord's question, I need to reflect more on whether there is a lacuna about which we have not thought. However, I have referred to a good deal of legislation which is there to protect individuals in work and in their homes and communities.

        House adjourned at four minutes past eight o'clock.

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