Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate for giving way. As he was good enough to mention my name, perhaps he can deal with one of my main objections: the anomaly of the offence of blasphemy and the way in which that can distort this new offence unless it is abolished first.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I shall come to that matter before the end of my speech.

In pressing your Lordships to go ahead, I am encouraged that the view that I have expressed is also the viewpoint of the main-line religious leaders of all faiths in this country. As co-chair of the Interfaith

10 Dec 2001 : Column 1178

Network for the UK, I am perhaps in a position to help the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, when he questions whether such faith leaders have in fact given their full support. For example, Mr Iqbal Sacrani, the general secretary of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, Mr Neville Nagler, the Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr Indarjit Singh, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, Mr Om Sharma, the president of the National Council of Hindu Temples (UK) and Mr Paul Seito, the co-ordinator of Buddhist organisations in the UK, have been consulted during the past week. They all support this legislation.

Of course there are those who argue contrary to that, but most of the representative religious leaders are of a common mind. It would be remarkable if they were not because for many years they have sought such legislation.

Thirdly, there are members of your Lordships' House who believe that the proposed legislation, limited as it is to incitement to religious hatred, is not adequate; and that it should be withdrawn and become part of a wider Bill which also includes religious discrimination. I totally agree that the legislation before your Lordships' House does not do everything that could be desired, but it is a major first step along the way. The workings of the legislation will give us invaluable experience in the years ahead as it is followed by further legislation tackling religious discrimination. I also add that in such legislation there would be space to deal with the blasphemy law. Its day indeed may have come. It would certainly be easier to view its departure were the clauses regarding the incitement to religious hatred already on the statute book. Certainly, we, from the Church of England, would view the departure of the blasphemy law with much easier hearts were that so.

I conclude by reminding your Lordships that the Bill deals with behaviour and not belief. A wise friend of my acquaintance says of those who mock his ancestry, XIt's not them I dislike; it's their behaviour I find difficult". This legislation is about divisive and anti-social behaviour—the incitement to religious hatred. It is not about belief. With that in mind, I hope that your Lordships will not support the amendments seeking to remove these clauses.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, we heard and rehearsed the arguments for and against incitement to religious hatred at Second Reading, in Committee and in a debate instigated by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. Many of us receive a large number of letters and telephone calls on the subject. They demonstrate that, whichever side of the argument one listens to, the general public—including some members of the ethnic minorities—are adamant that the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill is not the place for such legislation.

The Attorney-General cited some cases. May I ask him why it was not possible to prosecute when many of them breached the Public Order Act 1986? Some breached the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

10 Dec 2001 : Column 1179

My noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill has the appropriate bible—if I may use that expression—from which to cite all the examples.

At the heart of the debate are a number of important issues. They include the blasphemy laws—as ably demonstrated by my noble friend—the limits of free speech, cultural pluralism and the place of minorities in British society. Many of them are part of an on-going agenda, but that is not to argue that free speech should be valued more or less highly than civil order or racial harmony. That confirms that a public debate and consultation process are necessary before we legislate. That consultation has not taken place.

If we cannot take the public, including the ethnic minorities, with us, the law is bound to fail. That is why, while we broadly support the need for incitement legislation, we believe that it should follow detailed public consultation and take into account matters relating to religious discrimination. We are concerned about matters relating to cases in which the hatred is directed against groups abroad. That will immediately bring the Government into the politics of the sub-continent and the Middle East. As I asked at Second Reading: do we really want those battles to be fought on the streets of London?

The concession that the Attorney-General would be responsible for the decision whether to prosecute does not answer the question of why it is necessary to include it in emergency legislation of this kind. The record on incitement to racial hatred has been poor. In a debate on 21st November, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford pointed to the difficulty that since 1988 only 42 defendants have been successfully prosecuted and in 1999 there were only four prosecutions, resulting in only three convictions. We are now being asked to pass legislation that could have no better outcome.

One argument that is often forgotten, but of which the noble Lord, Lord Desai, well reminded us, is that an extremist hell-bent on violence is not going to ask about one's religious beliefs. We have seen that not only the Muslim community but almost all visible minorities are victims of vile attacks perpetrated by extremists who will circumvent the law so that they can carry out their propaganda against vulnerable communities.

The Home Office must accept that including incitement to religious hatred in this emergency legislation is resented by members of the Muslim community. Despite the Government's denials, they give the impression that that faith is intrinsically tied up with the events of September 11th. That is quite the reverse of what the Government intended, but they have only themselves to blame.

When will the Home Office learn that these measures are resented not because they are inappropriate but because they patronise ethnic minorities, and the Muslim community in particular? The Home Office should understand that religious hatred is not new. I could have told the Minister about that when I came here in 1956. As early as then, when I was living in Sussex, the Sussex Racial and Religious Preservation Society was formed.

10 Dec 2001 : Column 1180

The Government are shortly to produce a consultation document on Article 13 which will take into account discrimination based on religion. The matter needs to be considered not in a piecemeal fashion but as a comprehensive measure that will take into account the prohibition of direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. We need not worry about the statutory definition of religion or belief because practices that are contrary to human rights as guaranteed by the Human Rights Act 1988 will not be lawful. The Minister would have our full support if legislation were separated from the Bill. That would allow us seriously to consider what was appropriate and how we could command the respect of all our citizens.

For that reason, we support the amendment. We are not alone. Even the Commission for Racial Equality argues that a distinction can be made between anti-terrorism measures that can be justified as necessary in the current situation and those that have wider implications and should be given greater consideration in Parliament.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I rise—paradoxically, now—rather reluctantly. I wrote to my noble friend the Minister when the provisions first appeared to say that I could not possibly support Part 5 and would vote against it; I intend to do so in its entirety today.

I rise because I regard myself as belonging to a great political party. It would be appalling if, when the history of our time is written, at least one voice did not speak out against what I regard as a thoroughly illiberal measure and one totally alien to the history of the party of which, as I say, I am proud to be a member. At least one voice from our side must say that the Bill is a mistake.

I must admit—this is where I differ from some noble Lords with whom I hope to be voting later—that I would oppose such legislation more generally. I can think of no appropriate form of the legislation in respect of which I could put my hand up and say that it is compatible with liberal parliamentary democracy or the open society. Indeed, the main thought in my mind as I listened to those supporting the provisions is that the terrorists have won. If we pass this part of the Bill, we will undermine a fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy. That is the business that the terrorists are in: the destruction of parliamentary democracy.

Further than that, returning to my early days as a student, when I had the great honour of being taught by Karl Popper, I believe that the open society is the essence of what we, the Americans and others do. The crime of religious hatred—whatever that means, and I still have great difficulty following my noble friends' explanations of what it means—is incompatible with the open society.

10 Dec 2001 : Column 1181

The provisions have nothing to do with the protection of individuals against abuse, threats, and all that sort of thing. We have a legal system to do that; we have people who speak up for such people. I agree that sometimes, especially in the case of race, not enough is done. The lesson to learn from that is that we should enforce our existing laws properly, not invent this one.

Finally, Amendment No. 92A, which I know that my noble and learned friend proposes honourably and with a desire to help, really gives the game away. My right as a citizen of this country cannot possibly depend on what the Attorney-General—and I do not mean this specific Attorney-General but the office—decides are grounds for conduct that consists of the legitimate expression of religious belief. I decide what I regard as a legitimate expression; I do not require the office of the Attorney-General either to tell me or to be in a position to tell me.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page