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Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, this is my first intervention in the debate. I have been interested to consider the circumstances in which the Government's proposed new offence might be helpful. Starting from scratch, I am bound to say that I do not think it would be helpful in the kind of situation where it seems that this allegation might be most commonly made. That is where there are two communities living side by side, holding different religious views, and where the expression of their normal belief might be regarded as provocative to the other community.

I have thought back to the case of my late father, who was indeed a religious man. He ended up by being Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which was I suppose some recognition of that. He lived in a terraced house in Glasgow, which happened to be next door to a representative of Toc H—an organisation which I have not heard of recently—who was a descendant of Tubby Clayton's exercises. I remember distinctly when that organisation next door was wont to sing hymns loudly on several nights of the week. Whatever one may have thought of those hymns they became, in the mind of my father, something of a nuisance. It was a residential street, and when someone was just about to entertain some guests they would hear:

That might have been regarded as mildly irritating or even possibly provocative when it was repeated. So my father, having consulted a number of other neighbours who felt exactly the same way as he did—that this was a tiresome intrusion and almost too offensive—decided to retaliate. He played on his large gramophone a record of Mae West singing, as the
 
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Toc H followers arrived, "I wanna be evil". There was a suit for an accommodation. If either my father or the representative of Toc H had been dragged up on a charge of harassment, it would have been a preposterous state of affairs, and I do not believe that what the Government have in mind will alleviate situations of that kind.

5.30 pm

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I thoroughly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said. It is interesting that Clause 52 of the Bill says:

Then there are one or two exceptions, one of which, in subsection (4)(d), is,

It seems very odd, if the Government are content with the definitions of discrimination or harassment as being in respect of conduct which is undesirable, that it should be perfectly all right for a Minister of the Crown acting under an enactment to do just that. That seems a contradictory stance.

Needless to say, that is not my main difficulty—my main difficulty is the extreme vagueness of the provision. The Bill talks about "violating" a person's "dignity". What does that mean? I find it very difficult to see precise boundaries for that—but that is just one example. The whole clause is of that character, and as far as I am concerned the only thing to do is to omit the clause and leave it to be reviewed by the commission, which is engaged in a comparable activity.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, for all the reasons that have been given, I would like the clause to be removed from the Bill, but I should like to raise a procedural matter. I understand from the Clerks that there is no reason at all why the House should not alter the clause with Amendment No. 12 and then leave it out; or accept the Government's amendment, which certainly ameliorates the clause, and then leave the clause out if the House so wishes. This is very important, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that that is correct on the procedural point. Should the House fail to remove the clause, it would be very good to ameliorate it. I hope that there is no misunderstanding about that, and that I am right in what I am saying, as I did ask and thought I understood the answer. Perhaps we could have it confirmed by the Minister.

Lord Lyell of Markyate: My Lords, I am a latecomer to this Bill, because it had its Second Reading before I was introduced. However, when you come to analyse it, you find that it makes a deep-seated attack on freedom of speech and on freedom of religion. We fought over the centuries for freedom of religion. We did not have it in the 17th century; it was not until the 1820s that we got Catholic emancipation and it was
 
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not until well into the 19th century that we got religious freedom. Now we are making a move through this Bill—not deliberately, but this will be the effect—of actually restricting religious freedom very tightly and in very remarkable ways.

Under this Bill, John Wesley would have been prevented from preaching in most open-air areas. Biggleswade marketplace or the Marlowes in Hemel Hempstead are places where people go and speak and express their opinions, and are owned by the public authorities. There is a serious danger that people might be restricted in what they are seeking to do. People set out their stalls for different religions—principally Christian religions, but they might well be Muslim religions. As many noble Lords have said, not only the possibility of prosecution is at issue; it is the much wider risk of what public officials will believe that it is their duty to do to restrict free speech and free activity.

I praise my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon because she has made the most constructive effort to improve this Bill by removing the words "or effect". There is no doubt that removing those words would represent a significant advance, because at least that would bring the Bill closer to requiring deliberate intent. But having listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and others, including my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, one has to wonder whether removing those words would go far enough, because purpose is not quite of the same nature as intent. After all, it is an essential of freedom of religion that you preach your religion with the purpose of saving the soul of another person. You must be entitled to do that in a free society, whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh or a Jew, or of any other religion—or, indeed, a humanist or secularist—because you profoundly believe that to be the truth and that you will improve the world and the lot of your fellow men and women if you do that.

I shall say just one word about the sheer importance of freedom of speech. One cannot believe that the Government have lost sight of it. On "Thought for the Day" there is a regular Muslim speaker, and there is Indarjit Singh of the Sikh Messenger—and there you find enormous wisdom expressed. We have reached a very dangerous situation, in which we have what my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay rightly referred to as something like "distorted religions" or mistaken ideas of religions—probably referring to the Muslim religion. Let us suppose that there is a publicly owned block of flats in north London and that some of the Muslims who speak there wish to hold a meeting in which they wish to say, "We must uphold our faith but we must be careful of distortion". Will they be allowed to hold that, when they will be criticising fellow Muslims of a different type of that faith, just as we Christians sometimes criticise each other for different approaches to our own faith? They may be doing it in ways that would transgress this Bill.
 
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I believe that this part of the Bill, and this clause, present very grave dangers. If the House is moved to support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Miller, I shall vote for it, and if we move on to delete the clause altogether, I shall vote for that.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I have listened carefully to all the comments made by noble Lords on all sides of the House. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that many things have been said of me but very rarely have I heard it said that I do not listen and respond. If that is his view, I must tell him that I very much regret it.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I did not make that as a blanket accusation—I merely said that she never listens to me.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite wrong. I always listen to him because I have to answer the points that he makes. However, it is true that I rarely have the joy of agreeing with him—but there was one occasion that stands for ever in my mind, when the two of us were at one, and I shall never forget it.

We are faced with a very interesting position. I first thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, because she makes it plain that she supports the purpose behind Clause 45 but has trouble with two words—"or effect". The noble Lord, Lord Lester, says this is unripe time—that the debate we need to have should more accurately and properly be carried out in the much-anticipated discrimination law review. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, says that this part of the Bill should not be there at all. So there are three different stances, and other noble Lords and the right reverend Prelate have made variations on those themes.

For the purposes of clarity, I make it plain that what we are dealing with in this part of the Bill is how harassment will impinge on the way public services are provided. That is the context in which we speak. I shall start, although I appreciate it may take a little time, by dealing with the proper concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I accept her passion about the improprieties of "or effect", which she maintains should be removed, not just from the provisions that relate to Clause 45, but also from all other parts of legislation where they appear.


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