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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): The hon. Gentleman said that no religious group with which he had had contact wanted the clause but then said that there was no definition of religion. Is he aware that there are religious groupsor cults, as some people call themwhich privately welcome the clause because it will give them
Simon Hughes: I do not argue with any representations that the hon. Gentleman may have had. I have not had such representations, but I understand the argument. However, the interpretation of "religion" must not cover simply the great world faiths; it must be much more narrowly defined. There is an argument that if there is to be a definition, it should refer to "religion or other belief", not just something that calls itself a religion. It should also cover a lack of religion or belief, because otherwise agnostics or atheists are not treated equally. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary asks what I think the clause does. It does not deal with the "or other belief" alternative. Previous legislation has widened the definition of religion to do that. Many people think that is right because some have a strong philosophical belief, although they may not call it a religion.
Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): The hon. Gentleman referred to the blasphemy laws. The common law offence of blasphemy or blasphemous libel specifically tries to identify what religion is or, in fact, what is good as opposed to bad religion. Surely that is the problem with the blasphemy laws and the strength of this clause. It does not define what is good religion and bad religion, but deals simply with the problem of incitement to hatred of people on the basis of their religious belief.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman may recall from our debates on Second Reading that my party has believed for a long time that the offence of blasphemy should come off the statute book. Therefore, we are sympathetic to the new clause tabled by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). We do not, however, think that the Bill is the right place to do thatin that respect we share the view of the Home Secretary. In a few moments I shall explain our view that there are two main reasons why we should put aside such provisions today, concentrate on anti-terrorism measures, properly defined, and return in a careful and considered way to deal both with offences of religious hatred and discrimination on the one hand and, on the other, with hate offences generally, which do not stop at religion or race.
Denzil Davies (Llanelli): Although I agree in general with the gist of the hon. Gentleman's argument, he might be surprised to hear that, on the question of religion and what it means, British courts have found it easy to define and describe religion. It is defined as a belief in a supreme being or a God and a worship of that supreme being or God. Whether the platonic first cause comes into it may be something for the philosophers to discuss.
Simon Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman is correct. Indeed, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has tabled an amendment that would ensure that religion was thus clearly defined. All those facts add to the argument that we need to get the measure right. We need to establish what we think the law currently is and to think about whether it is sufficient; we need to decide whether that law will cover people who proclaim their own faith; and we need to ensure that we are clear about whether we want it to be related to belief in the supernatural. We must also decide whether the law should cover faithor the lack of itthat has nothing to do with religion.
If people outside this place, or the Government, honestly believe that Parliament can come to a wise judgment on all those matters, and others, in a couple of hours, we are not honouring the many people of much greater intellect, theology or philosophy than us who have been wrestling with those problems for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Is it not a fact that when we talk about religion and knowing what religion is, it is like the famous mot about describing a camel? We may not be able easily to describe a camel, but we know what it is when we see one. Broad definitions are often the best thing in law. For example, until the Conservative Government got rid of the public interest defence in the Official Secrets Act 1911, that defence was an extraordinarily good one, due to the fact that it was not defined. If it had been defined, it is extremely unlikely that Clive Ponting would have been acquitted by a sensible jury after an onerous prosecution. The hon. Gentleman really ought to think a great deal more carefully about that before he proceeds.
Simon Hughes: I do not dissent from the right hon. Gentleman's argument. I do not think that Liberal Democrat or Conservative Members are arguing that one needs a long and complex definition of religion. No one in the debate
Simon Hughes: Absolutely not. People are arguing, and we are clearly arguing, that legislation on terrorism is not the place to try to deal with certain matters to do with religionnamely, incitement to religious hatredor to deal with blasphemy or the much wider issue of the equal treatment of all religions and people of faith. For years, people of minority faiths have been campaigning for a big item on the political agenda: legislation against religious discrimination. It would be much better to deal with all those matters in one go and in one measure, rather than introducing partial provisions in a Bill where they do not belong.
Mr. Kaufman: I shall try not to interrupt the hon. Gentleman againpartly because I hope to catch your eye, Sir Alan, and to speak in the debate. However, the hon. Gentleman is seriously mistaken in his belief that the Bill is not an appropriate vehicle. The package of legislation that the Home Secretary is introducing is a consequence of 11 September. If I am called to speak, I shall attempt to demonstrate why, despite the fact that the proposed legislation is in any case overdue, it is especially necessary as a consequence of 11 September.
Simon Hughes: Of course, the right hon. Gentleman may use that argument, and he may not be persuaded by me, but I refer him to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which addressed this matter last week. That all-party Committee, which is chaired by one of his colleagues, was not persuaded that this was an appropriate time to legislate and warned us not to proceed down that road. The Chairman of the Committee is in his place and can correct me, but I can cite the paragraph of the
Mr. David Cameron (Witney): The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of this, but as I serve on the Home Affairs Committee, I asked the UnderSecretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), whether the Government had considered the option of abolishing the blasphemy laws. Many hon. Members think that that would be the right way to level the playing field, and she specifically said that, along with the other necessary issues, that would be
Simon Hughes: That is a very strong argument, and I want to tell the Committee about the remaining three arguments as to why we ought not to proceed now. First, incitement to racial hatred is already an offence and incitement to religious hatred will be made an offence under the Bill, but, as is made clear in an amendment that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, pressure has been put on Parliament for a long time to legislate and make incitement to other forms of hatred an offence, perhaps on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or other issues. Parliament may decide that it is far better to introduce legislation on incitement to hatred in which the categories are not defined or in which all the obvious categories are listed, rather than legislating in one decade against incitement to religious hatred, legislating in a second decade against incitement to racial hatred and in another decade against incitement to some other form of hatred. There is a strong argument for dealing with all those issues together and at the same time.
The second argument is that hon. Members may think that we will leave ourselves unable to respond to people who are concerned that the law does not protect them, but that is not true. A series of laws already exists on the statute book which forbids inciting people to do various things. Incitement to violence is already illegal, as is incitement to cause criminal damage. The authorities can prosecute people under a realm of offences.
The third reason is that our colleagues have recently set a good precedent. In considering how to respond to the Home Secretary's proposals, the Scottish Executive agreed a fortnight ago that, rather than including such provisions in a similar Bill, they would consult the faith groups in Scotland, the police, the Commission for Racial Equality and the political parties. Although they may wish to legislate and understand the need to legislate, they want to get it right. They want to legislate carefully, rather than legislating precipitately, and they want to take more time than we are being permitted.