Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Religious hatred offences

Lords amendment No. 23: Leave out Clause 39.

Beverley Hughes: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker: With this we may take Government amendment (a).

Beverley Hughes: The provisions in part 5 of the original Bill would create an offence of incitement to religious hatred. I shall rehearse some of the arguments in favour of such a provision and consider some of the reasons advanced in both Houses against it.

In relation to the original reasoning behind part 5, I remind hon. Members that, contrary to some contentions, the clauses were included because they had a clear connection to the events of 11 September. Many hon. Members are now aware—perhaps more so, since they have read the appendix to the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs—of some of the reactions that many Muslim people in this country and other parts of the world have had to endure since 11 September. There have been incidents of harassment, threats and incitement. Leaflets claiming that Islam is responsible for things such as intolerance, looting and molestation of women have been published. Websites that make similar claims are proliferating.

Those Members who have argued that the clause has no place in the Bill need to think about the behaviour that has been precipitated against Muslim people. It includes not only individual acts against Muslim people—there have certainly been crimes such as assault—but the growing emergence of propaganda inciting hatred against a religious group.

9.45 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): All hon. Members are interested in what the Minister is saying, but can she help the House by explaining how she would draw the line between proper discussion of the influence of Islam on the treatment of women in many countries and what she feels would be an offence under such a law? I understand where the extreme lies, but many of us ask where the line will be drawn. Given that religion cannot

12 Dec 2001 : Column 933

even be defined in the Bill, what hope is there of drawing that line in a way that will not lead to very considerable restrictions on perfectly proper discussion?

Beverley Hughes: I shall certainly come to that more general point later, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman now that one of the things that we have been trying to remind Members of during these debates is that the provision arises from the Public Order Act 1986. It will not inhibit rational discussion of any kind, including discussion of the premise or tenets of a religion but deals with the kind of threatening, insulting or abusive words and behaviour that will, or are likely to, incite public disorder. It deals with public order, not the limit of reasonable expression and discourse.

Mr. Hogg: Building on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and bringing the Minister directly to Government amendment (a), as I understand it, the Attorney-General will issue guidance on the circumstances in which he will bring proceedings. In reality, does not Government amendment (a) constitute a definition of the law? That guidance, which is not subject to debate or amendment in the House, will be issued by an Attorney-General—I make no personal criticism of him—who is not even a Member of this House. Is that a democratic way to proceed?

Beverley Hughes: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely wrong in his interpretation of what the Attorney-General is proposing. Neither we nor the Attorney-General propose that he take the power to decide the law. With this offence, as with offences involving incitement to racial hatred, the Attorney-General is required to give his consent before a prosecution can proceed, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know. The Attorney-General does not determine the ingredients of an offence and he cannot make something criminal that is not a crime under statute. There is a requirement for consent to filter out cases, and I shall expand on that point when I explain Government amendment (a) and the provision on the guidance that the Attorney-General will define.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): May I be forgiven for being very puzzled as a non-lawyer? Why is it necessary to include this measure—virtuous, or not—in this emergency Bill? I really do not understand.

Beverley Hughes: I started to set out what I thought were the reasons why the provision has been included. One of the reasons is that, as I have just elaborated, it has a direct link with the events of 11 September in terms of not only the features of those events, but some of their consequences for people from some religious groups, particularly Muslims.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Is the Minister not aware that other religious groups feel equally under attack? People from the Hindu community have told me how they feel that they have been threatened by the Muslim community. She suggests that the Government

12 Dec 2001 : Column 934

are simply reacting to one form of outrageous activity, but they do not accept that that activity takes other forms as well.

Beverley Hughes: That is not what I am saying. I am explaining why there is an opportunity, precipitated by the events of 11 September, for including the provision in this Bill.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): My hon. Friend has been challenged about what the clause is doing in a Bill on terrorism, and up to now she has not given us a satisfactory response. May I suggest the motivation? The clause has been tacked on as a sop to certain sections of Muslim opinion that have long wanted such protection. It is an anomaly and it should not be in this Bill—wrong clause, wrong Bill. The Lords were right to strike it down.

Beverley Hughes: Once again my hon. Friend is entirely wrong, and I shall come to the reasons why she is wrong in a moment.

The second reason for including the provision in this Bill is the current anomaly in the law, of which hon. Members will be aware. Legislation on incitement to racial hatred protects two religious groups: Jews and Sikhs. Taking the opportunity to expand the provisions on incitement to racial hatred to include religious hatred will extend that protection not only to Muslims but to other religious groups, including Christians. The clause therefore both corrects an anomaly and extends protection.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Government amendment (a) says:

Will we see the guidance before the Bill completes its passage through both Houses?

Beverley Hughes: I understand that point entirely, and if the hon. Gentleman is patient, I will answer his question.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Unlike the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), I am four-square with the Minister in wanting to give protection to the Muslim community because I understand that this has been a great source of hurt to them for many years. However, like the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), I cannot see why it is necessary to include the provision in this Bill.

Having studied all the case law, in which High Court judges have described race relations legislation as being, among other things, rubbery, I do not understand why the Government do not amend that legislation to make incitement to religious hatred an offence. Why are they introducing a wholly new offence in this Bill? The public mischief that Ministers and others want to deal with is a race relations issue, and the only reason why Sikhs and Jews are protected, and Muslims are not, is that judges have ruled in case law that the legislation does not protect Muslims. May I suggest to the Minister that the Home Office—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech.

Beverley Hughes: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber during the Committee

12 Dec 2001 : Column 935

proceedings when my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made a powerful speech that addressed the nub of the argument, but he set out the opposing point of view, which the Government and I share, that the route suggested by the hon. Gentleman would not deal with the fact that people are attacked and discriminated against on the basis of religion. There was considerable debate about whether the cause of discrimination is ethnicity, culture or religion, and we came to the view that it is religion. I agree with my right hon. Friend in that regard, and I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman missed that speech.

Mr. Gummer: The scientologists dignify a pyramid selling ramp with the word "religion", but when I say that, many scientologists will feel that I am stirring up hatred against them. Frankly, I am not trying to stir up hatred; I just do not want people to be led astray by that invention by Lafayette Ron Hubbard, who, as I understand it, made a lot of money out of it. If the Bill is passed in its present form, a lot of other people will call a lot of other ramps religion and protect themselves accordingly. I do not think that the Government know what they are doing. They are restricting people's right to point to sheer, outrageous, unbelievably wicked dishonesty.

Next Section

IndexHome Page