Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman share my anxiety in respect of new clause 6, that the directions have only to be given to one individual, and if he fails to carry out them out there are sanctions? An organised campaign could involve different people each day, as when a group of travellers boxed and coxed their vans and it was necessary to issue a possession order that affected not just individuals on the site but everyone who might go there in a certain period. Is not something stronger required?

Mr. Hughes: I absolutely understand that point. It would be a nonsense if the police had to take action against each individual, separately. The hon. Gentleman is right: hunt saboteurs or members of a civil protest movement, for example, might operate in shifts. The people in Whitehall or Parliament square might do their shift and then go home, to be replaced by another shift. That is how many protests are organised. We need to consider such matters and ensure that we do not allow the police to have a blanket cordon—we have given ourselves a blanket cordon around the Palace of Westminster, although it is not often used—and subject them to undue bureaucratic pressure to identify different people who are part of the same group. As someone said recently about terrorist organisations, the problem with these groups is that they do not have membership lists and they do not all turn up at the annual general meeting. It is difficult to discover who is a member of such groups.

On new clause 19, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) properly intervened to say that we must be careful that the law does not give protection to particular groups and not to others. By their own admission, it is on the Government's agenda to consider how to secure religious equality. Many religious groups in this country, particularly the Muslims, feel that their faith is not protected in the same way as that of other groups.

I am a member of the Church of England, which has particular protection in the law of the land: blasphemy against the Christian faith is an offence, yet it is not an offence to be rude or offensive about other faiths. That is wrong. There should be no such discrimination. We should have no law that makes free speech that may be offensive to people illegal; if the faith does not have the capacity to cope with that, there is something wrong with the faith.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says. Although it may not be directly relevant to the point about the animal lobby, if we are discussing matters of race hate and so on, I can see that religion is relevant, too. I, too, am a member of the Anglican Church. Is he saying that his party's official stance is to be in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England?

Mr. Hughes: We are in favour of disestablishment over a phased period. We are also in favour of the repeal of the blasphemy laws so that the Christian Church does not get more protection than other faiths. The Government said, on the record, that following a report from the university of Derby, which was due last October, I think, they would consider how to secure protection for people who are discriminated against or who feel that they are persecuted on the grounds of their faith. One reason why new clause 19 was tabled was to probe how far they have got with that. In a Committee last year, the Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), said that we would receive the report in the autumn. We want to know what has happened.

There is already differentiation in law between certain types of crime. Parliament legislated under the present Government to treat people who were guilty of race hate crimes differently from other criminals. The hon. Member for South Thanet might have voted against those measures—I have not checked, but I doubt it, because the measures had general support across all the parties. There is at least a case for examining whether hate crimes on a wider basis—gender, sexual orientation or religion—should be given the same treatment in sentencing or when defining the aggravation of an offence.

If Muslims or Sikhs are attacked because they are Muslim or Sikh, for them the evil is the same as in a race crime. As happened in the Admiral Duncan, if people are targeted because they are thought to be gay by a madman, their perception is that they have been targeted because of their sexual orientation. The victims' experiences would be similar to those in race crimes. I raise the question because all parties have, to different degrees, promised to address race crimes and viewed them as particularly obnoxious. I believe that we have unfinished business on that, and this debate was the only opportunity in Committee of examining what the Government have achieved. I will be grateful for the Minister's considered reply.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman argued for disestablishment, but then went on to say that he and his party were in favour of the repeal of all blasphemy laws because they do not cover other faiths. Would it not be more logical for him to argue that the blasphemy laws should be extended to cover those other faiths as well?

Mr. Hughes: May I complete my point? Disability, which is included in new clause 19, has not yet been mentioned. People are targeted, persecuted and attacked because of their disability. Again, those are particularly unpleasant, vile and obnoxious offences. All hon. Members will have experience from constituency work of people who have been attacked because they are in one of the categories that I have mentioned. We believe that the law should be strong enough to deal with that.

I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what the Government have achieved, although I understand that he might tell us that the review on sentencing is due in a couple of months and that some aspects will be properly covered by that. I cannot remember whether they are also covered by the review by Lord Justice Auld, although I think that it is examining the workings of the system rather than specifics.

Dr. Ladyman: I am concerned about new clause 19, because it specifies certain groups of people and therefore leaves out others. I do not happen to be a Christian, and my local Catholic priest has been denouncing me from the pulpit in recent weeks for not believing in God. I would not be protected by the new clause. Someone could commit an offence against me without its being an aggravation, because I do not belong to one of the specified groups. It would be safest to devise a form of words that defined aggravation as an offence that was committed against an individual without provocation. That would include everyone.

Mr. Hughes: I am extremely sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's view. This is proper debate. I made it clear that this was a probing new clause, which does not pretend to be perfectly drafted. Instead of ``religion'', it might be better to put ``belief'', because it would also include people such as the hon. Gentleman who have a belief, although not, in his definition, a religion.

We raised such points because the Government, encouraged by other parties and organisations both in and outside Parliament, legislated to give race hate crimes a particular position in the legal system. As that has been done, there are arguments about whether other categories should be included. One might take the perfectly proper view that they should not. The hon. Gentleman made a quieter point well regarding those activities that are particularly obnoxious, whereby people are picked on for no reason and attacked for what they are: either what they are that they can help or what they are that they cannot help, which is even more obnoxious. We want to know whether there is an opportunity to improve the law regarding that issue.

I wish to conclude by dealing with the interventions of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). A good reason why it would be impossible to extend the blasphemy law to cover all faiths is that we would then have to define faith and religion. I have always taken the view that that is impossible, unless we have a register of religions, as we now have a register of political parties. Where two or three people are gathered together, they form a religion. In other countries, they form political parties but in this country they can form a religion. That is why many of us argue that it is better to remove blasphemy law protection from the one faith group that has it, and that faith does not need legal protection. Those who have faith believe either that faith should be able to defend itself or that thunderbolts will come and act on its behalf.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand the hon. Gentleman's position, but surely he agrees that immense upset has been caused, particularly to those of the Muslim faith, by the many people who indulge in what that faith deems to be the most appalling blasphemies. Some of those people are extremely well known. We do not need to refer to them in the Committee and give them yet more undeserved publicity. Many leaders, particularly of the Muslim faith—I have connections with the Ahmadiya Muslims, and I think that the hon. Gentleman also knows them—would welcome some protection. That is why my view on the matter is slightly different from his.

Mr. Hughes: I understand the hon. Gentleman's view. It is fair to say that the view of the Muslim community in the United Kingdom is that it would like the law extended to give that protection. I understand why it takes that view, but I do not agree with it. I think that it would be better to have no protection. Like all others, the Islamic faith is capable of defending itself. In a world that allows freedom of speech, authors or others who wish to be rude about Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Sikhism should be allowed to do so. We have moved on. We should not be as sensitive as we have been. I take the view that freedom of speech should win over offence. It is an argument between more liberal and less liberal views about freedom of speech.

That does not mean that I am any less respectful of communities such as the Muslim community. I was with members of my Muslim community at one of the mosques in my constituency yesterday. I respect it hugely, and Muslims respect people of other faiths. That is not the issue, but I hope that I have explained my reason for taking a different view, which I accept is no more justified than the hon. Gentleman's. He is entitled to his view. I am sorry that I have taken longer than at any other stage so far in Committee, but several important issues have been raised.

To return to the central issue, it is important that people going about their lawful business are protected by the law from intimidation. The managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences—whom I have met—his staff and people working for other organisations do not deserve to be intimidated as they have been and should have the protection of Parliament. I do not think that there is any fundamental dissent among us, and I do not want to send out the message that there is. However, we must ensure that when we put a new law on the statute book, it is justified and we know exactly why we wrote it as we did. I am concerned that the Bill is drafted too widely. It could be more accurately and correctly drafted after consideration. We will have an opportunity to look back on the debate, and there will be a chance to make further changes later.

I hope that we end up with a law that works, that responds to concerns that have been raised and that ensures that people who engage in lawful activity, whether others like it or not, are entitled to do so. We must respect their right to do that and, in many cases, applaud them for doing it, because it is done not just in the best interests of themselves and their fellow citizens but, as they see it, for good moral reasons and in the best interests of society as a whole.

5.15 pm

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