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If we establish an offence of incitement to religious hatred, and if the Government soon come into line with European legislation outlawing religious discrimination,

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as I understand that they will—that move is both welcome and overdue—no one will need the protection of the blasphemy law.

Ms Abbott: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I shall not; other hon. Members wish to speak.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear outside this place that he entirely shares my view and believes that the blasphemy law should be abolished. I therefore urge him to get on with it—he now has the chance. I understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury is against such a move. However, he has a voice and a vote in the House of Lords. Our constitution has never granted the Archbishop of Canterbury a veto on legislation passed by this place. He should do his stuff in the House of Lords if he wants to do something.

I was asked to ring Lambeth palace, and I thought that I would be given full information on its position. As I understand it, the Archbishop's current position is not that we should repeal the blasphemy law, but that, to achieve equality, we should extend it to all other religions. Those who have reservations about the problems caused by introducing a law on incitement to religious hatred and the relevant definitions may think that this legislation is complicated, but they should try to imagine the problems that would be caused by a blasphemy law that tried to protect all religions equally without substantially reducing freedom of speech.

The Government did not intend to use the Bill to repeal the blasphemy law, but, as new clause 1 is very short, I cannot see any reason why we should not get on with it. Let us repeal it. The Home Secretary wants us to do it. Today, we could easily give him the opportunity to do what he wants.

Mr. Letwin: The debate so far has brought out a range of arguments on all sides of this difficult issue. I do not want to bore the Committee by recapitulating the points that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) well made on the unsatisfactory character of trying to legislate on this difficult matter in this context and at this speed, but I do want to dwell on the substance of the issue, and in particular on the words of clause 38.

Notwithstanding the well-intentioned remarks by some Labour Members, we are not dealing with an intention. The Home Secretary's intention is noble and justified: to protect vulnerable religious communities. We are also not dealing with outrages, some of which have been described by both Labour and Opposition Members. The House is united in believing that an effort by a shopkeeper to turn away a Muslim—I speak as a Jew, not as a Muslim—is an outrage. We are at one in believing that that is an outrage and should be outlawed. However, clause 38 does not do that. We are also at one in finding despicable the attacks on mosques and churches. They are not only despicable but dangerous to the persistence of a liberal society in Britain. The clause has no effect on those outrages.

As has been made abundantly clear, we support clause 39, which makes it an aggravated offence if an offence has been committed for a religious purpose. We support that, even in the Bill, because it is relatively

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uncontroversial in its effect. We are dealing with offences that already exist—as the application by judges has made clear—and we are merely making prison the norm for those offences. That is right where violence, or another offence, has been committed for a religious purpose. What threatens our society is sectarianism, which is worse than the violence or other offence would be otherwise.

Let there be no misunderstanding—there is no serious, legitimate debate in the Committee this afternoon about whether vulnerable faith communities should be protected. They should. There is no debate about whether vulnerable faith communities are insufficiently protected at present. They are. There is no debate about whether we need to take deliberate steps as a Parliament to remedy those deficits. We do. The problem we face—a problem that it is right to face in Committee, if not at this pace—concerns a set of words that, if the Home Secretary has his way, will be a statute; the law of the land. That will be interpreted by judges in ways that none of us can wholly predict and about which the Home Secretary has been almost wholly silent.

There is a problem with those words, on which I and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—who, unlike me, is not a Jew, but is black, and with whom I have not always agreed politically—are in agreement. The Committee ought to attend to the fact that some of us, of many different persuasions and backgrounds, have spotted the problem, and the Committee needs to concentrate on that.

Mr. Kaufman: The kind of arguments that the hon. Gentleman is making are almost word for word—certainly sentiment for sentiment—the arguments that were made by Conservative Home Secretaries in 1986 and 1994 when Labour proposed that there should be an offence of racial harassment. On those occasions, the Conservative Government rejected our proposals for the very reasons, and with the same measured phraseology, that the hon. Gentleman is advancing this afternoon. Nevertheless, this Government enacted such an offence in 1998, but all the dreadful, immeasurable consequences about which we were warned by the Conservatives did not come about. If anything, the offence has been sufficiently enforced. As and when the new offence goes on the statute book and is enforced, people such as me will be getting up to say that it is not being used enough, not that it is being used too much or too oppressively.

Mr. Letwin: It is odd that the right hon. Gentleman thinks he knows the argument that I am using, as I had not yet got to my argument against the precise words. However, I can reassure him in advance that it is not the same argument. I happen to be a supporter of the legislation on racial harassment and the measures to aggravate the offence if its cause is religion. The general character of my argument against the words is one that the right hon. Gentleman's speech wholly missed, which is that there is a difference in kind between arguments about religion and statements about race. Until the Committee recognises that difference, it will not make good law.

Ms Abbott: As someone who marched in 1984 and 1986 in support of changing the law on racial hatred, can I say that it is a testimony to the weakness of the drafting of the Bill that hon. Friends who have sought to defend it

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have wilfully confused racial discrimination with religious discrimination and are obliged to talk about acts of discrimination, whereas the Bill deals with acts of incitement to hatred?

Mr. Letwin: I am afraid that the hon. Lady is entirely right. I wish that I could say otherwise, given the differences that divide us on so many issues.

Let me try to describe what is wrong with the words in the clause. In general, they make a direct analogy between the disreputable attempt to castigate or to incite hatred against people because of something they cannot alter—their race—and the perfectly legitimate interplay of passionate religious debate in this country. Many of us in the House, myself included, deprecate the use of intemperate language in religious debate. In fact, I deprecate the use of intemperate language in debate, full stop.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch): Shame!

Mr. Letwin: That is exactly my point. I deprecate the efforts of people on both sides of the political divide to encourage people to hate those on the other side. I do not join in, but it is legitimate political argument. It is part of what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) rightly described as free speech in this country. If Labour Members wish to encourage hatred of me as a Conservative, they are at liberty to do so. Indeed, in the case of my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher, many of them have done so. I do not think that that is the right way to conduct politics, but I reassure them that I do not wish to put them in jail for doing so.

Religion, like politics, is a matter of argument, and people are intemperate in their expression. Nobody in the Committee is capable of telling us—indeed, the Home Secretary repeatedly fails to tell us—whether the judges will, for example, put in prison a Presbyterian preacher who calls the Pope an anti-Christ, a point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). There is a general problem with legislation that could lead to the impairment of impassioned religious debate.

Mr. Bryant: Intemperate discussion in theology is probably no better than in politics. The annual Good Friday march through the soke of Peterborough was mentioned earlier, when Christians from many denominations gather together. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it should be an offence if it was decided to photograph everyone on the march, find out their names and addresses and then circulate them so that people could visit their houses with violent intent? That is parallel to what is done by the British National party.

Mr. Letwin: Not only should that be an offence, but I am advised that it is one.

The problem that we face with these words is not merely general, it is practical. Several Labour Members have rightly said that we should not conduct this debate in abstraction but should attend to what is going on in the country, and I wholeheartedly agree. These words could unintentionally be counterproductive in inflaming sentiments at a time when the country can ill afford it.

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The Home Secretary intended, perfectly honourably, that the clause should mainly protect Muslims. However, he has rightly acknowledged that it is the tradition of our law that it applies indifferently and equally to all our citizens. Therefore, the first use of these provisions may not be against someone who is acting illegitimately against Muslims, but may be applied to a Muslim. I beg the Committee to ask itself, will that further the cause of dampening the serious fires that are raging in our country, or will it inflame them? That is part of the problem both of enacting legislation at a time when the country is in some turmoil and of enacting legislation that is ill considered.

If the editor of The Muslim News or one of his writers makes intemperate statements, they may be caught by the measure. In such circumstances, not only will we have an example of the improper curtailment of free speech, but of an action by the state that unintentionally produces the result of further inflaming passions. No one in the Committee can want that result but we have yet to hear the slightest shred of evidence from the Home Secretary that such a result would not follow.

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