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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my first duty is to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, on obtaining an important and timely debate. As a noble Lord observed, she could hardly have thought that the debate would have taken off in the way that it has, given events over the past week or two, which are continuing to unfold. The noble Baroness caught some of the mood and flavour of that in her exposure of some of the contradictions, as she saw them, in the expression of opinions and the detail of "political correctness", as she described it.

I congratulate all other noble Lords who have taken part in this good and vigorous debate. I have listened carefully to it and I intend to read it carefully. I have listened in particular to the previous two speeches, which along with all the others, will require close reading and in which points were well made.

I was intrigued by some comments. The observations of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about a change in the moral climate were interesting, although clearly provocative to some. I found myself easily agreeing with my noble friend Lord Dubs when he rightly said that freedom of speech was a guarantor of the protection of minorities; that view was echoed by others, including the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. The noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, reminded us that we should revisit first principles. She was right to do that and, indeed, some speeches took us back to those principles.
 
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I could not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that this Government had been irresponsible regarding freedom of speech issues and had been chipping away at it. However, I did agree when he said that the press had perhaps become more responsible over the past couple of decades. However, an interesting article by Roy Greenslade in the Daily Telegraph this week questioned the basis of that new responsibility, suggesting that trusting markets was a bigger explanation than most.

I certainly agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, when he said that there was an ongoing battle between fundamentalism and cosmopolitanism. I side with him in looking for the victor.

I was amused on hearing the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. It was the first time that I have heard someone claiming that there was a disadvantage to his life in being an old Etonian. The noble Lord should visit the kitchen Cabinet of Mr Cameron, who may put him right on that.

I could barely disagree with my noble friend Lord Soley's correct assessment that while these are important issues now, they are issues that come and go. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, took us back to the days of the Suez conflict and reminded us how the Lady Chatterley's Lover court case had been variously interpreted at the time as an attack on freedom of speech and expression. The echoes regarding a consistent application of the law were a theme picked up neatly by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, and came through in the debate.

Freedom of speech is central to the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy and of a free society. I doubt whether anyone in your Lordships' House would disagree with that. This Government are committed to upholding the right of freedom of speech and they have done a great deal to protect that freedom since taking office, particularly through the Human Rights Act 1998, which ensured that the right of free speech, contained in Article 10, along with other rights, of the European Convention on Human Rights, is brought directly into effect in our law, and that the courts must interpret the law compatibly with those rights.

We must all recognise that there are limitations on what can acceptably be said. Freedom of speech is not an absolute. The debate reflected that; the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart, Lord Giddens and Lord Kingsland, made it very clear that that was very much how they saw the matter. There are, as there must be, consequences when people go beyond those limits. There have always been restrictions to the freedom of speech; the European Convention on Human Rights itself states:


 
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For example, if we use racist language, if we encourage child abuse, or if what we say is intended to incite hatred or provoke violence, we accept that there should be consequences, and that such things should legitimately be caught by the law.

It is right that there should be thorough and lively debate whenever the boundaries of free speech are tested. We have heard a lot of such debate in recent months; today's debate is part of that. Before responding to some of the specific points raised, I would like to cover some issues more generally. First, I would like to say a few words about the cartoons, to which everybody has referred, that have caused so much controversy over the past week. As the Home Secretary said on Monday:

This is the best tradition of British tolerance and understanding and we welcome that. We and our EU partners stand in full solidarity with the Danish government in resisting the violence that has arisen. Nothing can justify the violence aimed at European embassies, or in Denmark. We understand the offence caused by the cartoons depicting the prophet, and regret that this has happened. Freedom of expression must be exercised with respect for the views of others, including their religious beliefs. Such attacks as we have seen on the citizens of Denmark and other European countries are completely unacceptable.

For this reason, we must ensure that the law is properly formulated to deal with the kinds of situations that arise. We accept that there will be debate on each occasion when it is proposed that the law is changed, but we do not apologise for seeking change when it is required. By way of example, perhaps I could briefly turn to the Terrorism Bill. I do not wish to say too much about this, because I have little doubt that it will return to your Lordships' House. I do not believe that the Bill imposes undue restrictions on free speech. The Bill creates new offences of encouragement to terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications. These offences can only be committed if the person concerned intends by his actions to incite acts of terrorism, or is subjectively reckless in that regard. I am sure I do not need to rehearse all the arguments we have had on this matter, but that, plainly, is our view. Any restriction on what may be said or done is, on some level, regrettable. However, as we have heard today, free speech can never be absolute. No one has a right to express publicly sentiments designed to provoke others to commit terrorist atrocities.

While we are in this field, it is only right that I say something, too, about the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. The Government believe that, as originally drafted, the Bill did not impact upon anyone's ability to joke, discuss, debate or to speak in any number of ways about religion or belief. The original Bill struck the right balance between catching those who seek to stir up hatred and the right to criticise and ridicule religion. However—and the Government must accept that this was the case—there was widespread support in the other place for the
 
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amendments voted in by this House. The Bill, as passed by Parliament on 31 January, therefore now contains a comprehensive freedom of speech clause, specifically stating that matters such as discussion, debate, criticism, expression of antipathy, abuse, insult, ridicule or attempt to convert people from one faith—or lack of faith—to another faith will not be covered by the Bill's provisions.

We believe that this gives the reassurance many have sought. An artistic performance that dealt with an issue of religion or belief in a controversial way could therefore proceed in the knowledge that it would not be unlawful. For example, much has been made of the production of "Jerry Springer—The Opera". As I said, the Government uphold freedom of expression, provided that it does not stir up hatred or violence. Theatres make their own decisions on which productions to mount. The BBC took the decision to show "Jerry Springer—The Opera" independently of government. Although it is clear that its production and screening has caused offence, there is no evidence that it has stirred up hatred against any religious group and it would not be caught by the proposed incitement to religious hatred offence. It would not have been caught by the Bill in our preferred form.

Similarly, although it was already an offence to stir up hatred against Sikhs under the current incitement to racial hatred offences, whether because of their race or religion, the police decided that there were no grounds for action against the play "Behzti", which some Sikhs felt targeted their community. That was right, although the police faced a difficult task in policing the demonstrations against it, and in the end the theatre withdrew the play.

Much has also been made in the press recently of examples of how religious freedoms are under threat. In particular, there is a view that the Christian faith is under attack, that councils will no longer support Christmas, and that Christian preaching and Christian symbols are frowned upon. I make it clear that the Government do not seek to prevent local authorities or, for that matter, anyone else being involved in carol services or any other religious celebrations or activities where they feel that it is right to be involved. What is right is that public authorities treat people of all faiths and none fairly.

Part 2 of the Equality Bill, which outlaws religious discrimination by public authorities, in the provision of goods, facilities and services and in education, and which was recently before your Lordships' House, does not make it unlawful for public bodies to celebrate Christmas, and it will not require the removal of Bibles from hospitals or the banning of Christian symbols. It is not in anyone's interests for councils to ban such events, and I do not believe that people from minority faiths want to see such things stopped.

However, it is also crucial that the Government work together with all faith communities to improve their capacity to fight extremism and distortion of their faiths and so protect our young people from recruitment to violence. We are determined to work in
 
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partnership with the Muslim community to root out extremism and tackle the causes of radicalisation among a minority of our young people. To that end, we are meeting individuals and organisations from across the Muslim communities to discuss where the Government can support them in taking forward recommendations from the Preventing Extremism Together report, as well as other initiatives.

The issue of when free speech should be curtailed in the interests of the protection of individuals or society is clearly highly sensitive. The Government are committed to maintaining free speech in this country and the proud tradition of tolerance that we have inherited. To do that, we need to adapt to the new challenges that arise, to work out the boundaries that have to be applied, and to work with all our communities to ensure that both tolerance and free speech are as real for our children as they have been for us. To that end, such matters will always, I hope, be the subject of profound and thorough debate in this place whenever they arise, as they have today.

Important points were raised in the debate, and I shall try to run through them as I come to a close. The noble Baroness, Lady Knight, rightly asked why Abu Hamza was not prosecuted earlier—a question very much in the public eye. As the Crown Prosecution Service and the police made clear in a recent public statement, despite information being submitted to the CPS on two occasions prior to 2003, at that stage it was felt by those authorities that there was insufficient evidence to charge Mr Hamza with any offence. I draw the noble Baroness's attention to an important letter in today's Daily Telegraph on that point from Ken McDonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions. It sets out from a prosecutory perception, and the CPS's view, how the prosecutions of Mr Hamza and Mr Griffin took the time that they did. He states clearly in the letter that there was evidence of a parity of approach, and we have to take that at face value.

The noble Baroness also referred to the Maya Evans arrest and made reference, as did others, to Parliament Square. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, raised the question about the use of the provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Provisions from that legislation have been enforced since 1 August last year. The majority of organisers have applied for authorisation to demonstrate, and I am advised that some 66 demonstrations have taken place with an authorisation. However, some groups have tested the legislation, perhaps provocatively, and there have been 23 arrests for taking part in unauthorised demonstrations. In all those cases, the organisers had not properly applied to the Metropolitan Police for an authorisation.

It is a longstanding tradition in this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, rightly argued, that people are free to gather together and demonstrate their views, provided that they do so within the law. Equally, access to Parliament must be maintained, and those living and working in and around the building should be able to do so in safety and free from harassment. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland,
 
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said, there has to be a balance between the rights of those working around Parliament and the rights of protesters. The noble Lord was right to say that difficult and fine judgments have to be made.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, asked a question, on which she had given advance notice, about the commission on faiths. I am conscious that the noble Baroness wants that to be set up soon, and I share that sense of urgency. Consultation with faith leaders and what are described as wider stakeholders working towards the development of the commission, were sent out in the autumn. The Home Secretary is now considering what the consultation means and how it will affect the scope and work of the commission. We are all hopeful that those considerations will be completed so that progress can be made. It is an important body and, as the noble Baroness argued, it is probably more important now than when it was first considered.

The noble Baroness also drew attention to what has been described as the police under-reaction to the recent protests, as did the noble Lord, Lord Soley. The Metropolitan Police have set up a post-event investigation to review evidence gathered by the specialist officers who attended the demonstration last weekend, which includes video and sound recording, CCTV and officers' written records. I am advised that the police will pass evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service to make a proper judgment on whether an offence has been committed. That has to be right. It is the professional body, which is independent of politics and the Executive. I can see the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, nodding because he made the point that it is for the CPS to make the decision on whether it is proportionate and right to proceed.

This has been a useful debate. I have certainly learnt something from it. The contributions have been powerful and the debate needs to continue. We in government believe in freedom of speech and in people's right to protest. It is fair and proportionate that there should be a measured response. Of course we need to be vigilant at all times. Again, I congratulate the noble Baroness. She has done a first-rate job in bringing the debate forward, and I hope that it is not the last time that we have the opportunity to reflect and consider the important issues that she has raised in her perspicacious way and with such thoroughness and great articulation. I congratulate all the others who have added to the sense that it is a debate for now and also one for the future.

5.08 pm


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