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Lord Monson: My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said, it is ideally not the right time to debate this matter at length. On the other hand, it is effectively the only opportunity we have. There will much to be dealt with on Third Reading. There is no guarantee that the issue will not arise late at night then also.
Introducing religion into the equation would open up a can of worms. If we introduce religious belief, why not philosophical belief, political belief, or, for that matter, irreligious belief? The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, in his seminal book on the Spanish Civil War, reminded us that there were occasions during that war when declared atheists were killed and actually dismembered by fanatical Catholics. The same fate or worse has often been suffered by atheists in Moslem countries.
I mentioned philosophical belief. It is well known that many paedophiles sincerely believe that children enjoy the attentions of older people, and sometimes positively encourage them. It is not an offence to express such a belief, nor should it be. But it is going too far to suggest that someone who shook his or her fist at a paedophile expressing such a belief should risk being sent to prison for two years rather than six months. I cannot support any of these amendments.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I express my strong support for the amendments put forward. It so often happens that it is the midnight hour when we discuss amendments to Scottish legislation. Perhaps I may draw upon my strong Scottish connections to say that it is by no means a can of worms that is opened up by the amendments proposed by my noble friend and supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon. Anyone with any connections with Scotland will know the reasons that these amendments
Lord Hardie: My Lords, I agree that it is an advantage that most of the noble Lords present are Celts. However, in relation to the amendments which are being discussed, I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Earl, and the noble and learned Lord, in their condemnation of offences motivated by religious bigotry. As I am sure do all noble Lords, the Government abhor such crimes which are wholly unjustified in any civilised society.
These amendments seek to extend the definition of the offence of racially aggravated harassment to include a reference to religion. As has been said in Committee, the Government have a clear objective in Clause 26; namely, to deal with racially aggravated harassment which poses a clear threat in our multiracial society. Unfortunately--I am not proud of this statistic--there has been a steady rise in the number of recorded racial incidents in Scotland in recent years. In 1989, there were 376. That figure rose to 832 in the fiscal year 1995-96.
The particular evil of racial harassment is that offenders identify their victims because of their appearance and because of what they naturally and inescapably are. Other groups in society do become victims of crime, including racial groups, because of who they are, but none is so open to harassment, based purely on prejudice, as the minority ethnic groups who form the majority of victims of racial crimes.
All attacks on vulnerable groups are deplorable. Section 26 is intended to reinforce the protection given to those members of our society who are particularly vulnerable to the action of bigoted criminals, and builds on long-standing legislation which seeks to protect individuals from prejudice on grounds of race.
I am aware that attacks which include elements of religious bigotry do arise in Scotland and they, too, are deplorable. However, as I said when we previously discussed this issue, such acts are difficult to identify and define in any satisfactory way. I should make it clear that I have no difficulty in prosecuting crime under the existing law, no matter what the motivation. The new offence of racial harassment carries the advantage that it may fit the facts of some cases of racial harassment better than would a breach of the peace, particularly where there is a course of conduct involved.
We consulted on the grounds of race, which is the issue that we are addressing in this Bill. We do not wish to detract from the message that this House will send out through the Bill to the victims of racial harassment. Our priority is to provide this additional protection for them. While I therefore understand and sympathise with the aims of the amendment, I hope that noble Lords will withdraw it.
Noble Lords will recall that in Committee I referred to the response of the Church of Scotland Church and Nation Committee to the consultation paper. In that response, the Church of Scotland recognised that, although small, there is a difference between religious and racial bigotry. That might well be an appropriate answer to the noble Earl, who raised the question of the Scottish dimension. This is a Scottish institution recognising that there is such a difference. In these circumstances, I ask the noble Earl to withdraw the amendment.
The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, I have clearly been trying to extend this clause to deal with the nature of intolerance, for whatever reason. I am certainly aware that there are many matters that people cannot do anything about. I am obviously concerned about--as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, put it-- the wrong message being sent to the public.
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