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5.15 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the general drift of his comments—that it may be reasonable to attack or oppose a religion intemperately—is in conflict with his earlier statement that the Committee should take action, which he has not yet defined, to protect vulnerable faith communities?

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Lady and I may simply disagree on the point, but she fails to make the distinction that I make. I do not think that it is reasonable, right or proper for one person to say highly intemperate things about another person's religion, but I make a distinction—the hon. Lady may not—between what I think is reasonable or unreasonable, and what I think ought to lead to people going to jail. The future of free speech in this country rests on that distinction.

If my argument and that of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is right, what are we to do about the situation? I accept that sensitivities are involved and it is important that both Houses respect them. I accept that merely to remove the provisions from the Bill will cause some of those sensitivities to be damaged, so we do not need merely to remove them—we need collectively, across the parties, to commit ourselves to the early introduction of proposals which can gain consensus, will deal with the whole issue of religious discrimination and religious tolerance, will firmly outlaw some of the outrages that have been described and that are not caught by current legislation, and will do so on a basis that we can be confident will not curtail free speech in this country.

There is a willingness across the parties to engage in that debate. It could be done on a timetable that would permit genuine reflection, and we might get it right. It would of course be an advance—albeit minimal—if the proposition put by my right hon. Friend the Member for North–West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) were accepted by the Home Secretary. Other amendments

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might be agreed to ameliorate these clauses. However, the fact is that nothing less than removing them and introducing proper provisions will genuinely solve the problem.

Mr. George Howarth: The hon. Gentleman's argument is predicated on the view that some cases would get as far as the Attorney-General, and that some would then get past him and into the courts that should properly never do so. Does he have so little confidence in the office of the Attorney-General and in the courts as to be certain that they would not act as a barrier? Will not the tests that would be applied weed out the cases that he describes?

Mr. Letwin: We have contemplated those questions in some detail. It is perfectly true that applying the brake of the Attorney-General much helps the clause, but the Attorney-General has to make his decisions on a reasonable basis. He has to look at the words of the clause and consider whether they apply. If there is great public pressure from people who want to use the clause to restrain other religious groups from making the statements that they are prone to make, the Attorney-General may find it very difficult reasonably to resist those calls. If the hon. Gentleman tries to place sufficient weight on the Attorney-General's shoulders to achieve the constraint that he seeks, he may put more weight on those shoulders than they can bear.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me gain. Far from supporting the argument used by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the clause fails to define what we mean by the word "religion", would not it be better, as the hon. Gentleman is arguing, to define that word simply and allow the courts and the Attorney-General to work on the assumption of the normal understanding of that word, rather than to define it more tightly, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey argued earlier on behalf of the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Letwin: I have not made any argument about definition; I am making an argument about what is likely to be the practical effect of the clause and whether that practical effect has a general consequence that the Committee should be willing to tolerate. That is not to do with definitions; it has to do with the fact that it is extraordinarily difficult to disentangle legitimate, though intemperate, religious debate from actions or words that the Committee would genuinely wish to become the subject of imprisonment. If the issue were not so difficult, as with race, we would not have this problem; but it is so difficult that neither the Attorney-General nor the courts can possibly be expected constantly to observe the distinction in a way that will preserve free speech in this country.

Mr. Kaufman: In the hon. Gentleman's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), he seemed to be entirely unaware of the way in which prosecutions are brought. The police bring cases to the Crown Prosecution Service, but the CPS does not necessarily agree to prosecute because it will bring a prosecution only if it believes that there is a reasonable possibility of conviction. The Attorney-General will deal with that issue even more cautiously than the CPS, so that is my response to what the hon. Gentleman says to my hon. Friend.

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When I intervened on the hon. Gentleman earlier, he said that I had done so too soon and that I might not have said what I said then if I had listened to his whole argument. The arguments that he adduces against the proposed new offence continue to be pretty well identical to those used on the Conservative Front Bench against the creation of the offence of racial harassment that we proposed, with the exception that he now proposes a compromise and a consensus with the Government. The Opposition did not do that when in government because they would never have proposed a consensus with those then in opposition. It is very easy for an Opposition to propose a consensus when the Government—

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): Order. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that interventions should be brief.

Mr. Letwin: Thank you, Mrs. Heal.

The right hon. Gentleman was present then, but perhaps I have the advantage over him of having re-read over the weekend what my right hon. and hon. Friends said. If he has done so as well, he will have observed that they did not argue that it was legitimate to make intemperate attacks on people because of their race. I am arguing that although I deprecate those people, it is a legitimate part of free speech for someone to seek to incite hatred against the Moonies because of what they have done to children. I am not saying that people should seek to do so, or that it would be reasonable or morally right for people to seek to incite others in such circumstances; I am saying that they should not be put in jail for so doing. If the clause was correctly interpreted by the authorities, it would tend to have the effect of putting those people in jail because the Moonies would count as a religion. If the right hon. Gentleman refuses to come to terms with that signal difference, he is not doing a service to the Committee.

Mr. Dalyell: Does the matter not depend on who the Attorney-General is? Attorneys-General are human, and some of us would like Attorneys-General to be in the House of Commons rather than in the House of Lords. However, that is another issue. Does the hon. Gentleman think that, for example, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller would have given the same answer as Sir Michael Havers or Sir Elwyn Jones? The answer is probably not.

Mr. Letwin: As so often, the hon. Gentleman has a long enough historical memory to realise the falsity of the suggestion that Attorneys-General are an undifferentiated species. Of course he is right to say that there would be different judgments. However, beyond that, the Committee surely does not want to bring about a situation in which an officer of the Crown would be called upon to judge what is compatible with free speech in this country. That is so fundamental a judgment that it surely falls to Parliament to construct law that is not so ambiguous that it requires that kind of administrative discretion.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): My hon. Friend mentioned the Moonies. Do not such groups have aggressive lawyers at their disposal? If the Bill is passed in its current form, such groups are very likely to use their lawyers to try to prevent their activities from being legitimately criticised.

Mr. Letwin: That is a fear; my hon. Friend is right. Furthermore, under the current circumstances of the

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nation, I fear that others with evil intent may seek to foster prosecutions of, for example, Muslims. It would be a tragic irony if the Committee and the Government were to create the circumstances that allowed the least reputable elements in our society—those who want to foster disharmony—to be able to do so by means of this clause.

Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend cited the case of the Moonies. Does he agree that a religious group that advocates sexual intercourse between adults and young children needs to be hounded by us all rather than protected by this Bill?

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend raises another serious problem.

Mr. Blunkett: Let us stop this silliness.

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