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4.45 pm

I take a slightly less generous view of a minority in our society than does the Liberal Democrat spokesman, for I have experience of people who, for their own malign reasons, use statements as an excuse to create difficulty and trouble. We have seen that all over the country. Indeed, in the urban part of my constituency, a British National party march was banned by the Home Secretary on Saturday, because there was reason to believe that, in some sense, what concerns us today might be played out on the streets of that metropolis.

There is on Good Friday in Peterborough a march of witness of Christians from all denominations, and they have an open-air service in the Guildhall square. As the

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service takes place on Good Friday, it will not surprise the Committee to hear that the importance of Jesus Christ, who he was and his death are at its centre.

I regret to tell the Committee that I could be persuaded that, among the other groups that live in the city, there may be found enough irresponsible people who, at the edges of that service, might find occasion to behave in an unacceptable and illegal way and that they might blame their being offended on having heard insulting words. Therefore, the person declaring nothing but the central tenets of the Christian faith would be put under the spotlight as having spoken in an insulting way likely to cause offence, even though the consequences were not necessarily the result of what was said.

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because his remarks are of considerable interest. I have considered his amendment closely, but surely his example falls in any case within the definition of the aggravated offence. In other words, the individual committing the offence falls within the definition of "aggravated" on the ground that they would be considered to have acted in such a way on the back of an event that, as it happens, does not fall within the range of incitement. Is it not a fact that his party and, I believe, his Front Benchers favour the aggravated offence remaining?

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I do not want to have a row with the Home Secretary—I am trying to be helpful to the Bill—but I think that he has misunderstood. As I read the Bill, the circumstance that I described would leave the speaker at the service open to the charge of being likely to cause offence by saying something that others, who disagree fundamentally with it, used as an excuse to behave inappropriately.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Is not my right hon. Friend's case made also by reference to the second collect for Good Friday, which is still in the Book of Common Prayer? It can still be said at services and it refers to Jews, infidels, Turks and heretics.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: Over many years in the House, I have learned always to defer to my hon. Friend when it comes to the Book of Common Prayer.

Mr. Garnier: I think that my right hon. Friend's concern would be dealt with by the power given to the Attorney-General to withhold consent to prosecution. I cannot envisage a situation such as that described by my right hon. Friend in which the Attorney-General would permit a prosecution under the Bill. The problem with amendment No. 106 is that, if my right hon. Friend, as a convinced and practising Christian, were to go one Friday evening to Regent's park mosque and interrupt a Muslim service by reciting the creed in the middle of it, he would be outside the realms of prosecution. I am sure that that is not what he contemplates. Although I accept that interrupting a Good Friday service in Guildhall square in Peterborough is theoretically possible, it is unlikely to result in a prosecution. He has opened himself up to the problem of allowing people to interrupt other people's services by expressing their own religious faith.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I was careful at no point to talk about interrupting the service. I do not agree with my hon.

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and learned Friend. I want to be careful, not least for the benefit of the Home Secretary, not to make this a Christian point of view against others. I believe, again with regret, that a minority in my community and in communities all over the country may congregate outside mosques after Friday prayers and behave in a similar but reciprocal way, which would put the onus on the Muslim rather than on the Christian.

I am reminded of the fact that the Home Secretary said "no" unequivocally. He was kind enough to say that he thought that I was making a serious point. I can assure him that my concern about the ambiguity and the risk to which I am drawing attention is not unique to me. If he does not intend to accept my amendment, No. 106, I invite him to tell the Committee that he will introduce an amendment in the other place that does in his words what I am seeking to do in mine. I should like him to say that he will accept my amendment, but I do not pretend to have the drafting skills of the Home Office draftsmen available to him. I would settle, as I think would the Committee, for his assurance that the essence of my amendment will be enshrined in the legislation in the other place.

The essence of the amendment is that, if someone in good faith recites the fundamentals of his beliefs, no offence will have been committed, whatever may be the consequences of that recitation. I commend that view to the Committee.

Mr. Dobson: Some of the arguments that have been put in the Chamber and on television and radio about the Government's sensible and timely—if not belated—proposals to make incitement to religious hatred a crime bear a marked resemblance to the arguments that were put in the 1960s when it was proposed that incitement to racial hatred should be made a crime. The same arguments have been peddled: history shows that they were spurious then, and they are spurious now.

In the society that we live in today there are victims of religious hatred and religious discrimination. Muslims in particular are victims of that. It is a safe bet that an hour or two ago some Muslim mother collecting her child from primary school was abused, or possibly assaulted, by some lout because she was wearing a veil that revealed, if that is the right word, that she was a Muslim. Such action is unacceptable, and Muslim people find it unacceptable that they are not protected by the legislation against racial discrimination, because that action constitutes religious discrimination. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) pointed out, it is different from what is suffered by people who are Jewish or Sikhs, where religion and ethnicity are combined.

The Muslim religion is being singled out at present, as anyone who knows anything about what the British National party's collection of racist thugs are doing will know. They are saying to other Asian groups, "You Hindus and Sikhs ought to gang up with us and beat up the Muslims." That is effectively the message that they are putting across. It is an effort based on the promotion of religious hatred, and it is time that we did something about it. Indeed, we should have done something about it before now.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman's case is that a community is being singled out for what

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are clearly unacceptable practices. I have received serious representations from members of the Hindu community, who say that it is they who are being persecuted by the Muslims. His implication that only the Muslim community is under threat is simply untrue.

Mr. Dobson: If what the hon. Gentleman says is true, or if the observations of those to whom he says that he has been listening are true, it is equally unacceptable. I believe in equality before the law. The problem is that we have no crime of incitement to religious hatred. I believe that such a provision would make some people safer, and they are entitled to that additional safety.

Some have asked whether it is appropriate to introduce such an offence at this time, and in association with this Bill. The fact is that the incidents that we are discussing have become worse. People are suffering domestic terror all over the country: they are threatened on the street and in their homes.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) seemed to suggest that because not many people had been prosecuted under the racial discrimination legislation, we need make no effort now to make incitement to religious hatred or religious discrimination an offence. I think that we need to get on with it, as I said on Second Reading. We should not downgrade the impact of what we do in this place: changes in the law affect public opinion.

Ms Abbott rose

Mrs. Fitzsimons rose

Mr. Dobson: I will not give way for the moment.

The introduction of the crime of incitement to racial hatred had an impact on what people said and did. Similarly, in an entirely different sphere, the introduction of tougher laws against drunken driving brought about a huge social change. Drunken driving, which used to be socially acceptable when I was a young man, is now socially unacceptable. We must not underestimate the declaratory effect of changes in the law, which is why I support this proposal.

I have tabled a new clause that is intended to bring about yet greater equality before the law. Its purpose is to end the common law offence of blasphemy, which protects only the Church of England. The law on blasphemy does not protect any other Christian sect from abuse, whereas such abuse could be considered blasphemy if it were directed against the Church of England. Nor does that law offer any protection to any other religious group. As long ago as 1949, Lord Denning described the law as a dead letter, and it is now 16 or 17 years since the Law Commission said that we should get rid of it.

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