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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, since history began and all throughout time, there have been declarations about the significance of free speech as a crucial part of a free society. In the first century AD, an emperor of Rome said,
There is no shortage of similar quotes for the last two centuries either, but I want to get on. Let us acknowledge that freedom of speech is still, as it always has been, the main concomitant of a free society, and if the former goes, then the latter will, too. I believe that the Government support this view. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said in this House that we,
The emperor, the judge, the MP and Milton must be spinning in their graves today. Simply for reading out the names of dead soldiers during a peaceful demonstration near the Cenotaph, a young woman was arrested, charged and convicted, and she now has a criminal record. That cannot be right; she was not
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threatening, nor inciting anyone to murder, nor had plans to be a suicide bomber. She was simply reading out a list of names. For that she is listed as a criminal, and 20 more similar cases are pending. A woman taking part in a radio programme said she thought that two men should not be allowed to adopt a young boyothers might possibly agree. She was telephoned by the police and informed that her name had been recorded on a police register for what she had said. A 74 year-old black man was surrounded by police and ordered to remove a placard which he had hung round his neck. Was it urging people to riot, to behead infidels or to attack property? Not exactly; it read, "Jesus Christ is lord" and urged repentance. I cannot see why that should be an arrestable offence, but apparently it was.
It was not, but no one minded and no such bearers were ever stopped by police and threatened that, if they did not remove their placard, they would be arrested on a criminal charge. You were allowed to express your opinion then, and the world and his wife passed by, often with a pitying little smile at your eccentricity. All these cases I mention are recent, and all brought forth instant action by the police. No wonder there is a growing nervousness about speaking one's mind. Our laws are being interpreted differently for different religions, though I think they should be the same for everyone.
I believe that the Government want to protect freedom of expression; unfortunately, local government too often does not. A fearsome number of local councils judge political correctness to be more important than free speech. In some cities, you are not allowed to celebrate Christmas if you call it that. The C-word must not be used in public displays or decorations. The charming custom of schools staging nativity plays with pint-sized angels, kings and shepherds, is banned. One wonders what might happen if British Christians went to live in a Muslim country. Would there be pressure there for Muhammad's name not to be mentioned? I don't think so.
Schools have changed. Teachers and carers dare not give a small child who is crying a comforting cuddle, nor touch them at allalthough often that is exactly what the little soul needs! Bang goes another freedom of expression. If a girl when under the age of consent becomes pregnant, a crime has been committed. Nothing much seems to be done to pursue that point, but the girl's teacher cannot tell the girl's parents, however loving and caring they may be, unless the child agrees. Yet in many cases, if the parents did know, they would rally round, support and help the girl, whatever she decided.
All that has happened in the past few years. Christmas has always been named and celebrated and Christianity supported. It is after all our national,
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established Church, and there should be nothing wrong in supporting it. Good teachers have always provided sympathy and comfort for unhappy little childrenand parents with the heavy responsibilities they bear, have the right to know of their children's problems. Freedom of speech has been sacrosanct until now.
The man who has taken up residence in Parliament Square, opposite the main gates of the House of Commons, has a perfect right to voice his opinions, whatever they may be. But what gives him the right permanently to deface one of the most prestigious pieces of public land in Britain with his filthy flags and tatty signs? That is not free speechit is blatant vandalism. And I put the proposition that there really is a fundamental difference between allowing people to say what they think and allowing them to incite violence.
It is offensive to Muslims that Muhammad should be portrayed with a bomb in his turban; that is perfectly understandable. It is just as offensive to Christians that Jesus Christ should be blasphemed against and ridiculed, but I have never heard of Christians taking to the streets to demand that those who have blasphemed or ridiculed should be beheaded. If they had, I should certainly condemn them. Throughout history, famous peopleclerics, kings, politicians and even deitieshave been ridiculed in cartoons published in Britain; but no one has suggested banning the practice or stamping on press freedom until now. That worries me.
Theatres can and do produce plays which are grossly offensive to Christians. There may be a few protests, but nothing happensthe play goes ahead. But if they plan a show which is offensive to Muslims, they are bullied and there are riots and threats and harassment until the play is withdrawn; and it always is. Sensible Muslimsand there are plenty of themcertainly do not advocate or support special treatment for Muslims; but to many observers that seems to be happening, and that, too, is very dangerous for society. Peaceable and law-abiding indigenous members of society are arrested for reciting names, for trying to get signatures on a petition, or merely for giving their opinions or carrying a placard naming Jesus, or even being rough-handled for heckling at a political meeting. There is instant action against those people.
But for years the police knew that one Muslim was actively inciting extreme violence, training suicide bombers, hoarding weapons and dishing out false passports. Yet they did not arrest him, because the Crown Prosecution Service, or somebody or otherthere is some dispute about who exactly said itsaid no. So they did not. But thank God the police finally did arrest himand thank God he now faces a prison sentence. It is not a very long one, it is true, and he
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could be out in about three years; but at least he is in prison now. But when one recalls that one of his students very nearly blew up a whole planeload of people with explosions hidden in his shoe, one cannot fail to note that that very late judgment by the police actually threatened many lives.
If that man with the explosives in his shoe had not been discovered by very vigilant security men, a whole planeload of people could have died, because of that one man who was left for so long free to do that. Whether the late decision was caused by loosely worded laws, the CPS or MI5, the police or political correctness, I do not know, and I do not think that anybody else knows. Perhaps it was a bit of all five put together; I do not know. However, I hope and trust that the Minister can assure us, first, that free speech will not be further curtailed. I should make it clear that I do not seek to attack the Government here; I do not think that they are at all in favour of what has been happening. I merely hope that when we receive the Minister's reply, we shall learn that such further curtailment will not happen.
Secondly, can the Minister assure us that whatever laws exist in this land, they must be applied equally and fairly to everyone? The British people are slow to anger and very tolerant, but they can be pushed too far. Any further diminution in equal justice and free speech could do that. I beg to move for Papers.
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