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Lord Alton of Liverpool: I support the amendment and I strongly agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lyell, when he reminded us that the purpose of the amendment was to deal with the question of intention or incitement. The whole Chamber should recognise that a valuable and helpful attempt has been made by the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Hunt of Wirral, in laying this new framework before us. It will provide a new framework should the amendment be agreed. There is sense, therefore, in having a Division in Committee. We were rightly reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, that we are entitled to do so if we wish although in recent years it has not always been our practice. If we are to put a new framework for the Bill in place, now is the time to do so. If it needs to be changed in ways such as those outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who made his usual thoughtful, consistent contribution on this issue, we shall be free to do so on Report. There is merit, therefore, in reaching today a conclusion on the amendment.
There are good reasons for agreeing the amendment, not least because at Second Reading many noble Lords expressed the wish that the Bill had not been brought forward. We have to recognise some of the realities expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others that because it is a manifesto commitment the Government clearly will see the Bill on to the statute book. Therefore, we have to recognise that there will be legislation and we have to do what we can to make it workable.
That is the spirit that the noble Baroness adoptedwe are pleased to see her back in her usual placein the letter circulated to Members of the House earlier today. We have already received at least one briefing note contesting four of the points in the letter. I shall happily let the Minister have sight of that note if she has not seen it. Nevertheless, I recognise in the final paragraph of the Minister's letter a willingness to continue in discussion and dialogue with those who are willing to seek to make it a better Bill and to achieve the purpose for which the Government say it is intended.
Anyone who followed the events in Burnley mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, or those in Birmingham this weekend, knows that there are deep issues of alienation which we have to address. However, many of us believe that the Bill may be the wrong remedy and that legislation is not the way forward. I was struck by the words of the right
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reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpoolhe is in his seatin an article published on 24 October. He said that neighbourliness between religions is the soil in which our society can grow into the future. He set out reasons why such a constructive approach between the denominations and religions is the way forward, breeding a climate of tolerance rather than legislation.
"It is the case that faith communities hold divergent views and there are circumstances in which these differences are aired even in situations where this may be seen or heard by members of other faith communities. However, there is a need to maintain a clear distinction between debate founded on mutual respect and the expression of hostile views with the requisite intent to cause offence or generate hatred. It is the view of this forum that the legislation as it appears in its current form fails to maintain this distinction".
The noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Lester, seek to draw again that distinction through the amendments. My fear is that vexatious litigation will be generated by the legislation. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Wedderburn, mentioned the situation in Australia. There is a purely vexatious case before the courts in Australia on not identical but similar legislation. They have taken to court clergymen in Australia who have been running the Alpha course which is comparable to courses being run throughout this country.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I accept the noble Baroness's point. I said in my preliminary remarks that there is a difference. However, my key point is that legislation has generated vexatious actions. Such legislation will be inciteful: it will generate from different groups complaints against other groups. It will create sectarianism where perhaps none existed hitherto. That is the real danger of this kind of legislation.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: Does the noble Lord not agree that, whereas the Attorney-General can stop prosecutions, he cannot do anything about stopping civil actions, which have also burst out in Australia?
Lord Alton of Liverpool: The Committee will also want to take that issue into account as it considers how we should proceed. I have said enough. I think that this is a good amendment. It honours the commitment that many entered into at Second Reading to try to find a way forward, recognising the political realities that pertain. I hope that even if the Government resist the
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amendment today, they will enter into the dialogue offered earlier by the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Hunt.
Lord Clinton-Davis: I think that, in many ways, the Government have offered the Committee a laudable Bill, but I share the view expressed by many that this is not the right approach. I speak as someone who has seen how the fascists operate, and we are playing into their hands.
I can make a very brief contribution to the debate. This House should ensure that good law is passed, but I cannot come to the view that at present this Bill is good law. Intentions are irrelevant. We must decide whether the law should be as stated by the Government, and I am afraid I do not think that it should.
The criticism broached tonight is not, in my view, party political. There is a division of views on whether the Bill will intensify or subtract from the deeply difficult situation that we face. I disagree with the noble Lord who has just spoken. I think that the Government should be given a further chance to think about this matter. What has been presented to the Committee today should certainly not be the last word. But if the advice that has just been given is followed, this House will get itself into real difficulty.
Therefore, in my view, the Government should be given an opportunity to think again about what has been said. That involves perusing the speeches that have been made, the intention behind them and what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, with whom I usually agree a great deal. That is vitally important as well. I do not happen to agree with it but I think that it should be taken into account. It is vitally important that we should be able to think again on Report, but we should give the Government, perhaps with our help, the chance to come to their own conclusions in the interim.
The Earl of Onslow: If the Government are going to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, then I suggest that we do not press the amendment. If they say, "Yes, it is flawed"which most people are saying it is"We will take it away and introduce a lot of amendments more or less along these lines on Report", then I think we should give the Government the chance to do that. If, howeverI have a terrible feeling that this will be the alternativethey are going to dig their heels in like the shield wall at Thermopylae and say, "They shall not pass" (mixed metaphors and battles), then I think that we should press the amendment because, as my noble and learned friend Lord Lyell said, unless it is in the Bill, it cannot be made better on Report.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I wanted to say a briefer word to support the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. This is a bad Bill. The Government should be given a chance to take it away and think again. It is difficult to improve a bad Bill with amendment. It can be done, but there is one aspectI am giving only oneof the amendment that I could not possibly support. It was
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raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. It relates to the practicalities, the difficulties and the directions to the jury; the problems of enforcement. They are serious and they have not been truly debated or discussed.
We do not want law that is not properly enforceable and we do not want to be rushed into it. If there is a Division I shall abstain, but what I do is of no importance to anyone. However, it is of some importance that the Government should be given another opportunity to take away a Bill that has been severely criticised by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester.
Lord Plant of Highfield: As one of the signatories to the amendments I would like to say a few words. I agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lyell, said and I do not have much to add to the positive case for the amendments. He put it much better than I could have done. I am sure that the Government are entitled to a Bill on incitement to religious hatred. It was a manifesto commitment. But as we see already in the debate over the Bill to deal with tobacco smoking, there is more than one way to meet a manifesto commitment.
The division that would emerge from these amendments between the racial hatred legislation and the religious hatred legislation would enable the Government to meet their aims more effectively than the present Bill. The other relevant factor is that we all have to accept, whether we support the Bill or not, that there is a great deal of confusion about what it entails. Many people say that it does not abridge or have a chilling effect on freedom of speech; other people think that it does. Part of that confusion is itself the result of the rather complicated statute that would emerge through merging the two pieces of legislation. It would be better and less confusing.
It is curious that, according to Ministers and Government supporters, some of the brainiest lawyers in the HouseI am not a lawyer; I have been called many things in my time, but not a lawyerseem incapable of understanding the Bill. If that is true of such eminent lawyers, how much more evident is it going to be to people outside this House who are dealing with these matters at a less elevated level? There is a case for clarifying the nature of the Bill and the amendments would do a great deal to achieve that.
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