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Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, part of the difficulty is the way in which the courts react to issues of criminal damage. The examples cited at the meeting I attended were about the very minimalist penalties imposed on people who had committed acts of criminal damage which had caused enormous offence.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, the Home Office collects figures of offences that are racially or religiously aggravated and publishes them from time to time, but they are very difficult to get at. I have spent many a weary hour looking for them on the Home Office website. Can the
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Minister find some way of giving the statistics greater prominence so that the communities which are affected, as my noble friend described, have regular bulletins of information showing how many offences of this kind have been reported to the police, what happened to them and what sentences were passed?
We know from the figures that I have already given your Lordships on the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 that the Home Office collects these figures. It can say how many cases were prosecuted and what penalties were imposed but it cannot describe the individual ingredients of particular offences. I urge the Minister to see whether something cannot be done to collect that information and make it more widely available so that at least some reassurance can be given to the communities which are affected that proper efforts are being made by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to bring the culprits who do these horrible things to justice.
The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: My Lords, I, too, support in principle the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. It is important for the message and the recognition that this will give to our various religious communities up and down the land. Although the wording may need closer definition, it would be enormously reassuring to many people from different religious communities were the amendment to be included in the Bill. I give it my support and hope that the Government will look kindly on it.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for giving us an opportunity to make absolutely clear our sense of revulsion at the evil acts that he described and our determination to root out that vile behaviour from our society. This has been an important opportunity to make our views clear.
"In this Part 'religious hatred' means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief and shall include the desecration of symbols or sacramental objects that are important to such a group of persons".
That emphasises the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza; we must be very careful about adding these words in the context in which they are proposed. That point was also made by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe.
Although I sympathise with what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, I fall back on the wise advice of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. We may be straying beyond the intention for which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle quite rightly expressed his sympathy, but in considering these words, we would be extending protectiondare I even mention it?to the swastika and various other evil symbols of a decadent past civilisation. I caution the noble Lord about the wording of the amendment while expressing total support for his objective, which I strongly endorse.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on the sense of
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revulsion one has about such attacks. It is important that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has expressed his personal view on these matters, because it underlines why we all recognise the importance of dealing with hatred, whether it is stimulated by virtue of race or religious belief. It is important, therefore, that we view the amendment in that light.
I say with the greatest delicacy that to proceed with dealing with racial and religious hatred in a way that impacts on individuals, we need to be quite clear about separating objects from people. There are already a large number of offences which would bite on such acts of desecration and criminal damage, also enabling the court to deal much more trenchantly and effectively with the perpetrators. We have done that by giving the courts the ability to attack such behaviour if they believe it is racially or religiously motivated in an improper way. There is of course an issue about how to express our distaste for that in the way in which the courts deal with it and in sentencing. The Sentencing Guidelines Council will be empowered to look at all those issues. That may be the most appropriate place to deal with the matter.
The amendment would effectively create a statutory offence of incitement to the desecration of religious objects. As I have said, to incite another to such activities could already be prosecuted. It would be very difficult to make the argument in public that it is people whom we really want to protect by virtue of this offence and not religion per se. While we believe that a maximum sentence of seven years' imprisonment is appropriate for those who seek to pit entire communities against each other, we doubt whether it is appropriate in the case of objects to give a similar protection.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, am I right in saying that the gangsters, the thugshowever one might characterise themwho desecrated 40 Muslim graves can, if caught, be prosecuted for a whole series of different offences and that, if they are convicted, their crimes could be regarded also as racially or religiously aggravated, for which they could be charged as well?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right about that. I am grateful to him for mentioning that a whole series of graves has been desecrated. We were deeply wounded by the number of Jewish, Muslim and other graves that were desecrated. All those desecrations cause great alarm and great fear in the affected communities because those graves are the graves of loved ones and should be the more precious for that.
So I absolutely understand, bearing in mind particularly the events of the past few weeks and days, why the noble Lord brought this important matter before the House for debate, but this is perhaps not the most appropriate Bill for it, not least because, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, quite rightly said, there are other means by which we could properly address this really quite disgraceful behaviour.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation and to all noble Lords
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who have participated in this debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who explained the feelings that are generated in communities by actions of this nature. It is not my intention to go further in this case, but I shall look in future legislation for an amendment of some kind that deals with the situation far more effectively than do existing powers. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"(2) In this Part
"religion" shall mean belief in a god or supreme being and worship of that god or supreme being, and "religious" shall be construed accordingly;
"threatening" shall mean deliberately subjecting someone to justifiable and immediate fear of violence."
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that I may be forgiven if I briefly say before I turn to my amendments that when the two Front Benches swap pieties at a difficult moment, I always feel that I am going to be lost and will probably be faced with a Bill and certainly with consequences which I do not welcome. I am sorry to say this to the noble Baroness, whom I admire immensely, but at the end of her remarks she left me nourishing the dark suspicion that where she was heading was back to the old Bill and presenting us with the Government's original intentions as declared in their manifesto.
I have only one more comment to add to that: I have never been able to subscribe to the idea that any party manifesto deserves the status of holy writ that is normally accorded to them. They are dreadful documents. I recall with pain having once had something to do with one. I remember the aching boredom and the total frustration that accompanied the process. That anybody should elevate the results of a manifesto to the status of holy writ is beyond my imagination.
Perhaps I may proceed very briefly to the amendments and say to your Lordships that, after this afternoon's proceedings, I hope to endear myself to your Lordships at least by my brevity. The amendments owe a great deal to the unfailing kindness of the Public Bill Office. I was extremely uncertain about the definition of "religion" and I am extremely grateful to the Public Bill Office for its usual courtesy, co-operation and help.
I take the subject of the amendments very seriously indeed. If I am right in thinking that religion is part of man's age-long search for a better understanding of God, it is therefore surely an area which governments should enter only with the utmost caution and with greater respect than they are normally accustomed to showing to anyone except themselves.
I have four points. First, I regard the fettering of expressions of opinion in any event as an encroachment on freedom which is usually wrong and almost always counterproductive. Secondly, to plead
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that it has been done previously, as did the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, compounds rather than excuses the offence. When the Lord Chancellor started to talk about gaps in the law, he made me think of a rather over-zealous dentist looking round the teeth of a patient to see whether any holes need stopping.
Thirdly, the lack of a definition in the original Bill worried me. It contained expressions such as "likely to". The repetition of "likely to" in as little space as a single line made it too horrible a piece of legislation for me to wish to dwell on. I regard vagueness in legislation as asking for trouble. I hope that the Government, whatever else they may do, will not attempt to repeat phrases such as "likely to" in their next version of the Bill.
I turn to the last of my detailed points. If discussion is going to be stifled, does one stifle it everywhere or just in some places? Does one leave Members of either House of Parliament free to say whatever they want and to be reported however likely to disturb their words may be, or is it intended to stifle discussion in your Lordships' House and another place?
I conclude with this single comment: for a governmenteven a government who see themselves as wholly secularto intrude and make criminal the expressions of opinion which were originally uttered or printed without any intention to provoke anybody is a monstrous intrusion and a piece of arrogance which I would find very hard to forgive. I await with some interest, and a little hope, the Minister's reply. I beg to move.
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