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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way throughout his speech, but I wonder whether he can

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help me. I listened carefully to the exchange between him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). If a Muslim religious leader were to use religious arguments to persuade a young British Muslim to fight in Afghanistan against whatever troops were there, possibly including United Kingdom troops, on the grounds of religious conviction, would the hon. Gentleman regard that as acceptable?

Simon Hughes: That is a difficult question. It is not acceptable for a British citizen to fight against those fighting in the name of our country who are trying to bring order and democracy to another part of the world. However, we have to examine the language to determine whether someone was inciting someone else. If someone argued from a profound belief that the Koran justified a certain action, he would not be guilty unless he intended to bring about the violent activity that the hon. Gentleman described. However, if that person intended to cause another person to act violently, he would be guilty and he would be caught by an offence that already exists.

My point is that such offences are already on the statute book. First, we have the incitement offences that I have mentioned and we also have the extra offences that Parliament has put on the statute book in the last two years under the Terrorism Act 2000. Certain acts are now offences even if they relate to activities that take place abroad. Therefore, the law provides us with plenty of opportunities to prosecute without the need for this additional offence.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): If the hon. Gentleman's argument is correct, why have none of the Muslim clerics to whom the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) referred been prosecuted for openly encouraging what amounts to sedition? I suspect that the Government have not taken action because they feel that they do not have the powers to take it.

Simon Hughes: I do not know the factual answer to that question. However, I tabled a question a couple of months ago to ask how many offences of incitement to racial hatred had been prosecuted and taken to court under the Race Relations Act 1976. Before the election in my constituency, there were some marches by members of the extreme right who appeared to me to use language that was clearly an incitement to racial hatred. The answer I received was that, since the mid-1980s, an average of about half a dozen offences had been prosecuted across the whole of England and Wales each year.

That raises a question. Even though the offences are on the statute book, why are there so few prosecutions? Therefore, if we are to legislate for this offence, it has been suggested that we should amend the Bill so that an annual report is made to Parliament to list the decisions of the Attorney-General and explain why he has made them. We would then know whether the law was being enforced adequately.

This exchange has shown that the Committee must consider all sorts of issues. Liberal Democrats believe that the blasphemy law should go and that we should have an equality Act that guarantees all the faiths equality and does not protect only certain faiths from discrimination,

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as is the case under the current race relations legislation. For example, it protects Sikhs and Jews but not Muslims. Liberal Democrats also believe that, if we were to create an offence of incitement to hatred, it would be better to do so by creating a general incitement offence that covered all the issues, and did not pick off just one of them and legislate for that with the intention of returning to the others later.

The Scots have set us a very good example. They have said, "Proceed gently, don't legislate now, take the clause out of the Bill and return to the issue once the Bill is on the statute book." I hope that we will follow their advice

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that we have come to a precipitate conclusion in introducing an offence of incitement to religious hatred. Is he aware that the Law Commission canvassed the possibility as long ago as 1985? Sixteen years is a long period for precipitate action.

Simon Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman made that point the other day. In reality, the Law Commission argued for that proposal in a way that suggests that there had been measured consideration. However, it has never argued that the offence should be introduced suddenly in the context of another Bill. It has never argued that the proposal should be linked to anti-terrorism legislation or that it should be dealt with by emergency legislation that is guillotined and timetabled. It has never argued that it should not be dealt with in the context of all the other considerations related to this issue.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Some Scots give good advice and some give bad advice.

Simon Hughes: That characteristic can be attributed, without discrimination, to people of every nationality. I note that in this case the approach appears to be based on the common advice of at least two parties in Scotland and, I think, is supported by the other two main parties. That does not mean that it is right, but it has united people there far more than it has here.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) rose

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) rose

Simon Hughes: I am trying to conclude my remarks, but I will give way.

Caroline Flint: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we have previously discussed defining racial hatred as a crime, many said that it was unnecessary because we had enough laws to deal with that problem? Is it not the case that we are going through a period of uncertainty and possible terror in which religion has become an issue? Mosques have been attacked in many constituencies, and in Yorkshire places of Christian worship have also been attacked. It is right that we define that form of hatred in such important times.

Simon Hughes: I respect the hon. Lady's view, but I disagree with her. I have served on Committees and participated in other debates in which we have tried to get hate crimes—religious hate crimes, gay hate crimes and

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so on—on to the statute book, but the Government of the day have said that the time was not right or appropriate. The issue is not new. I accept the point raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and supported by, I think, the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), from his professional experience. It is not as if there are no laws on the statute book which we could be using.

My constituency has a large community that is made up of minority faiths as, no doubt, does the hon. Lady's constituency. Of course I want to ensure that those people are protected, but that is not what we are debating. I have talked in detail to people from those faiths and asked them what they want and need most to give them the maximum protection. The maximum protection will come from legislation that treats all faiths equally, that does not give protection to a denomination of one faith and that ensures that the law is clear and does not restrict the freedom of speech, as some people fear might happen. There is nothing between us on that, but should we rush through legislation that might be subject to row, division and wrong construction later?

I have asked many people about this problem, as I am bound to do, and few have said, "Let's put this on the statute book now. It's been around for a long time." Let us get it right if we are to legislate. I give the Home Secretary an undertaking that my colleagues in both Houses and I will facilitate time for legislation on such matters in this Session after the new year, provided that we have a proper inquiry first on how to draft legislation so that it receives the widest agreement in Parliament.

Several hon. Members rose

Simon Hughes: I want to conclude my remarks. I hope that the Committee will proceed carefully, listen to the voices outside and follow the example of our Scottish colleagues. I hope that it will at least support our amendment but, if not, that it will make a more effective contribution by removing clause 38.

Mr. Kaufman: I fear that the debate shows all the signs of developing into one of those cosy little discussions in the House of Commons that bear little relationship to the reality outside. What is more, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is using what Hugh Dalton used to call the doctrine of unripe time, in which all sorts of things need to be done and it is a good idea to do them, but not just yet. My argument is that this is the moment to act. With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, whose sincerity I do not question, when he uses the phrase "those in the minority faiths" he shows how unrealistic the debate is.

The House of Commons should take a look at itself. What does it consist of? It consists overwhelmingly of white Christians. Some people may think, "I am white, and if I were in the Army I would be described as C of E, but I am not a Christian." They may think of themselves as an agnostic, an atheist or a humanist. However, it is very easy indeed for white Christians to say that they are an agnostic, an atheist or a humanist, but although Jews, Muslims or Hindus can decide within their convictions that they are an agnostic, an atheist or a humanist, to everybody else they will still be a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu.

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