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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I shall begin where the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) left off and speak briefly on clause 119 and schedule 10. I have misgivings about the new offence that we are creating—that of stirring up religious hatred. It is being introduced for a noble purpose, as the Home Secretary acknowledged earlier, and for the best of reasons, but it still makes me feel a little uncomfortable. There is no consensus among the public that calls for the introduction of this new offence. When Lord Avebury looked at the matter in detail in the Special Select Committee, one of the conclusions was that there should be a degree of protection of faith but that there was no consensus as to the precise form that that might take.

That is still the position. Religions are belief systems, and all belief systems should be open to challenge, ridicule, satire and debate. In a free society, it should be possible to contest them.

Paragraph 305 of the explanatory notes states:

However, those are just the notes, not the terms of the Bill itself. Eminent jurists and lawyers say that the Bill would have that very effect.
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The Bill contains no definition of religion, and that is amazing. There will be an offence of stirring up religious hatred, but we will not know what constitutes a religion. Apparently, the Government are content to leave that for the courts to decide.

Mr. McWalter : Does my hon. Friend accept that the expression of antipathy towards a creed might be okay in a conversation, but that schedule 10(11)(3) means that broadcasting such a view on the radio or in an interview on television or in the newspapers would render it likely to be seen or heard? As a result, strong antipathy expressed in that way would fall within the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Prentice : I shall come to that very point, but first I want to deal with the fundamental question of what constitutes a religion. I was about to say that this question will test the most eminent jurists and the finest legal brains in the land. In an intervention on the Home Secretary, I said that there were 5,015 Jedi knights in Sheffield. They belong to a religion that was listed in the 2001 census. Across the country, there are—amazingly!—390,000 Jedi knights. I suppose that they must worship Darth Vader, or something.

That is astonishing, so I took a closer look at the 2001 census and its list of religions. The list includes mysticism—well, why not?—paganism, new age beliefs, and Vodun. I confess that I have not heard of the latter, and I should be pleased to take an intervention from any colleague who might be able to help me out. The list goes on to cite the Wicca religion, Tin Tao, ancestor worship and Cooneyism. It mentions satanism too, and about 200 other religions. They all have adherents somewhere in the UK. The religions listed range from the bizarre to the absolutely mainstream. It will be left to the lawyers and the courts to interpret which religions will be caught by the new offence that is being created.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Schedule 10(3) also refers to people who lack religious beliefs. That means that we are talking about inciting religious hatred among lots of our fellow citizens who do not believe in anything at all.

Mr Prentice: Atheism is included in the list, and I think that gnosticism is too. The list can be accessed on the web. As the hon. Gentleman says, the Bill captures those who believe in a religion and those who, conversely, do not. That is a little perverse.

What do we mean by hatred? I suppose it means a really intense dislike. How would Christians feel about satanists? I imagine that they would feel an intense dislike for the Antichrist—perhaps that is another one for the lawyers. After all, we have a satanist in the Royal Navy now: he got some publicity a couple of months ago.

I am not an expert in these matters, unlike some colleagues, but there is an ambiguity about where the line will be drawn on what is and is not acceptable. It all seems very subjective at the moment and, of course, one person's meat is another's poison. I have heard it said that the new legislation could be used by coreligionists—a fundamentalist Muslim against a more mainstream Muslim or an ultra-orthodox Jew against a liberal Jew. It might be felt that the liberal Jew was in some way selling out the religion.
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Intention is not included in the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) pointed out. Intention is not required for the offence to be committed. It must be shown only that the action had the effect of stirring up religious hatred. The hon. Member for Canterbury pointed out that the statute book is very thick and there must be any number of ways in which the police and the prosecuting authorities could successfully bring to book someone who incites violence.

In fact, Lord Desai made that point when he said that we do not need a new law, because the existing provisions should be sufficient. That point was amplified last night by an eminent academic lawyer, Professor Jowell, speaking in the Jubilee Room. He said that, for an offence to be committed,

He said that the provisions were very vague and he was not sure whether they covered something that was offensive. He also said that the provisions set a very low threshold and he was not sure what sort of statement would cross the threshold and be liable to prosecution.

The Home Secretary told us earlier that the person of the Attorney-General provided a lock or failsafe, because he would make the decision on prosecution. However, in deciding whether or not to prosecute, the Attorney-General would be establishing a benchmark of what was and was not acceptable. Is that a proper safeguard? Who knows what kind of religious beliefs a future Attorney-General might hold. We might end up with a really fired-up, souped-up, born-again Christian: we do not know.

The final worry is that the Bill may encourage self-censorship. People may be wary of saying anything that could be taken out of context and cause offence. The people who say that most passionately are those who work in the creative world—journalists, writers, comedians and performers. The comedian, Rowan Atkinson, who attended the meeting in the Jubilee Room last night, said that he believed that the Bill would lead to a

He went on to say that it was incredible that in future he might crack an illegal joke. That is astonishing and not very funny, so I hope that the measure will be considered exhaustively in Committee, because many people out there, as well as Members on both sides of the House, have big reservations about the new offence that we are about to enact.

4.10 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I do not always entirely agree with the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), but he spoke eloquently and I agreed with every word he said. I am grateful to him for giving us the benefit of his sound advice.

The Bill is like the curate's egg—good in parts. In fact, it is good in most parts. There are 155 clauses and more than 200 pages. I agree with most of them, although there are one or two bits that I want to pick over, if I get the opportunity. There are obviously some easy political points to be scored here, if we wanted to try to do so, but today is not the time for that.
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There is one serious and fatal problem with the Bill: the religious hatred provisions, which are ill-conceived, idiotic and an offence against freedom and common sense. They may damage mainstream religions, and they will certainly damage tolerance in our society, and will benefit only the worst type of extremists. They will also benefit the law industry, which stands to trade heavily and expensively on the uncertainties and lack of definition in the Bill.

Like many other pieces of legislation introduced by the Government, the Bill transgresses the law of unintended consequences. I accept that the Government are introducing it with good intentions, but it will deliver unintended consequences. It will reduce tolerance, and that is a major problem. Just as the Hunting Act 2004 will damage the overall welfare of our fox population, and the Gambling Bill will create super-casinos that will increase the damage done to individuals, families and society by excessive gambling, so the religious hatred provisions in this Bill will attack society's freedoms; they will damage tolerance, and may bring extremist right-wing responses that damage religions themselves.

I want to start on a positive note, however, and whistle quickly through one or two of the Bill's main provisions. On balance, the new agency—SOCA—is necessary to respond to greater co-ordination in international organised crime, such as people trafficking, drug trafficking and money laundering. I welcome the move to set up the agency, but I want to address two issues. First, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad, which, with some help from Customs and Excise, will form part of the new force, have generally served the country well. They have good management and administrative support and their officers are dedicated and professional. We should not forget to thank them and give them recognition for their achievements, dedication and professionalism.

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