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Mr. Blunkett: In case anyone should think of writing that up as a tremendous debating point, I make it clear that we have had an extradition agreement with the United States since 1974. We understand precisely where we are on that. It was not the Government but the courts who judged that we should not extradite or remove to India, so we come full circle: the hon. Gentleman is deciding—is he not?—not simply that we should disavow but that we should have to withdraw from the European convention on human rights. That is what he is saying.

Mr. Letwin: To repeat: the opinion we have obtained suggests that it would be perfectly possible to withdraw for a millisecond and to re-accede with a reservation. However, the Home Secretary has made an extremely odd point. Our treaty and understandings with the United States rely on the American states to which we are extraditing individuals not applying the death penalty. If an American state or the federal Government insist on applying the death penalty, I cannot understand how it can be right to refuse to extradite a gentleman whom we are trying to kill elsewhere. That is irrational.

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I have spoken for too long, for which I apologise to the House. I have done so mostly because I have tried to answer a number of interventions, as the Home Secretary did on a much more magnificent scale. I hope that, in the succeeding few hours, we shall have a calm but effective debate on the detail of the Bill, which poses fundamental issues for our liberties and safety. I hope that in Committee, in this House and in the other, we shall make changes that will make the Bill not perfect—we cannot hope to do that with this rush—but at least better. Finally, I hope that, in a year and in two, three and four years from now, Parliament will have the chance to reconsider the provisions and to decide how many of them are really necessary and how many need further amendment. If we can achieve that in Committee, in this House and in the other, Parliament will have done its job.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): May I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches?

5.36 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): I do not suppose that any hon. Member welcomes this Bill because we all regret the circumstances that have made it necessary. We wish that there was not a growing threat of terrorism and growing evidence of people provoking and inciting racial hatred and discrimination, but, sadly, there is. We face a dilemma: we are presented with emergency legislation, but we have to recognise that these laws are likely to have to remain in place for many a long year and that they might be strengthened and amended later to combat the threat of terrorism.

Attempting to curb terrorism will be a long process, but we have a duty to protect our law-abiding fellow citizens going about their business or, for that matter, going about their pleasure, and we also have to make a measured response. We must always bear it in mind that one of the objectives of terrorism has been, is now and will be to get us to conspire with the terrorists to bring our valued institutions into disrepute and to get us unnecessarily to erode our democratic standards, so we must be very careful.

The Home Secretary has had a very difficult job in attempting to strike a balance. Broadly speaking, he has got it about right, although hon. Members on both sides of the House have many detailed criticisms. However, I hope that, in the spirit that has been embodied in virtually all the contributions, he will listen to the points that have been made and consider additional safeguards where they can be provided without undermining the general strength of what he is trying to do.

I want to concentrate on the proposal to make incitement to religious hatred a crime in the same way that incitement to racial hatred is a crime. That proposal seems to have provoked a great deal of adverse comment from the commentariat in the newspapers, hardly any of which seems to have addressed the background to the proposal.

The proposal has been introduced because Muslims have been victims of religious hatred and discrimination not just since the murderous events in New York and Washington, but for years. Muslim mothers collecting children from primary schools have been abused and assaulted. Muslim homes have been stoned and fire

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bombed. Well-qualified Muslim young people have been denied the jobs that they expected to get. All that has happened because of religious hatred and discrimination, yet Muslims have been denied some of the protection that is rightly afforded to other groups.

Incitement to racial hatred and discrimination has been unlawful since 1965, and most of the arguments now being put against making incitement to religious hatred and discrimination unlawful are exactly the same as those put in the 1960s. The problem is that the racial hatred laws cover some religious groups—for example, Sikhs and Jews—where religion and ethnicity coincide, but that is not the case with Muslims. Muslims, if they are a group at all, are a religious group, not an ethnic grouping. Devout Muslims feel resentment because they know that the blasphemy laws do not cover their religion.

I support the proposal to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary pointed out, the scope has been limited so it does not pose a substantial threat to freedom of speech. I agree that it will be hard to enforce—the law against incitement to racial hatred has been difficult to enforce—but it is not impossible.

We must remember that the law is declaratory. Making incitement to racial hatred discriminatory and unlawful changed society's view of the awful things that had gone on in the past. The law declared that such incitement was wrong and at the moment we are not declaring that incitement to religious hatred and discrimination is wrong. I believe in equality before the law, so I am glad that the Home Secretary accepted our argument that the proposed change in the law should apply to people of any religious belief.

The law should also protect people of no religious belief, because 40 to 45 per cent. of the population of this country—and I am one of them—subscribe to no religious belief. Atheists and agnostics are just as entitled as anyone else to protection against fanatics having a go at them. We should all be equal before the law. We need to right a wrong against Muslims and I believe that this change will do that.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the change will have two effects on the Muslim community. It will protect them from attack, and also constrain immoderate attacks by some of them, which is only right and proper. Equality before the law is what we believe in.

If we pass this measure, it will remove the last fig-leaf of legitimacy for the present law on blasphemy. As long ago as 1949, Lord Denning described it as a "dead letter". In 1967, Parliament repealed the Blasphemy Act 1697 and in 1985 the Law Commission recommended—and no wonder—that the common law offence of blasphemy should be abolished. It has never been clearly defined. People may commit a crime without knowing that they are doing so. Despite that, there is strict liability, so if people commit a crime they may be guilty even if they never intended to cause offence in either sense of the word.

The last time that the courts considered the matter in 1991, it was decided that not Christianity but only the Church of England was covered. That relied on the summing up of a judge in Gathercole's case at the York summer assizes in 1838. I am proud of my native city and its contribution to English history, but that is ridiculous.

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There is no reason why any religion should require special protection over and above what the Bill intends to provide.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I am afraid I do not have time.

I understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury and others have objected on the grounds that the change might lead to things being said that cause offence to people of deeply held religious beliefs. Deeply held religious beliefs are not a monopoly of the Church of England. Roman Catholics, Quakers, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs all have deeply held religious beliefs and have no protection at all from blasphemy. Although I am not a believer, I recognise their deeply held beliefs and I do not believe that the Church of England is in such a bad state that it needs some special measures. As my right hon. Friend knows from his experience as Secretary of State for Education and Employment, special measures are usually an indication of real trouble.

I have tabled an amendment, which I understand that my right hon. Friend favours. It was drafted by the Law Commission and comprises just 84 words to amend a Bill of 114 closely printed pages. I hope that he will ignore his officials and, if the Archbishop of Canterbury has objected, that he will ignore him. The Church of England should learn to stand on its own feet.

I am reminded of a glorious episode—and I mean that—in the history of the Church of England when Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were being got at by Catholic theologians. It was said that Cranmer leant upon Master Latimer in the argument, Master Latimer leant upon Master Ridley and Master Ridley leant upon the singularity of his own wit. People in the Church of England should now lean upon the singularity of their own wit and look after themselves. They do not need the state to protect them.

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