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Lord Dixon-Smith: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General for his explanation. His assurances will apply not only to myself but equally and as beneficially to those who have prompted me to table the amendment.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, for his support. Of course the noble Lord has supported a proposition which we have been arguing throughout our deliberations on the Bill; that is, the question of putting elements into the legislation that really have no business to be there. However, as the noble and learned Lord has said, it is a fact that the Front Benches of another place were agreed that this should be included in the legislation. That was why I did not mention that particular piece of the background.

Lord Goldsmith: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Would he be kind enough to confirm, as I believe it to be the case, that the Front Benches in this House were also involved in those discussions?

Lord Dixon-Smith: I can speak only for my own part. I was made aware of the discussions after they had taken place. Be that as it may, I am absolutely satisfied with the outcome. Equally, I am satisfied with the explanation offered by the noble and learned Lord regarding the lack of need for an annual report. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 109 agreed to.

Clauses 121 and 122 agreed to.

Schedule 8 agreed to.

Clause 123 agreed to.

Clause 124 [Commencement]:

[Amendment No. 184A not moved.]

Clause 124 agreed to.

4 Dec 2001 : Column 824

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 185:

    After Clause 124, insert the following new clause—

Part 5 of this Act shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has conducted a consultation exercise on its provisions with the following bodies, and placed a copy of their responses in the Libraries of the two Houses of Parliament—
(a) The Law Society,
(b) The Bar Association,
(c) The Justices' Clerks,
(d) The Districts Judges (Magistrates' Courts),
(e) The Lay Magistracy, and
(f) The Crown Court Judges."

The noble Lord said: The amendment refers to Part 5 of the Bill, which deals with race and religion. It always seems to me to be gloriously inconsistent to propose amendments to a part of the Bill that one would prefer not to see in the legislation in the first place. However, we believe that it is worth while bringing forward this amendment because of the acute difficulty of a possible conflict between freedom of speech and the possibility that that may verge on or merge into incitement.

The amendment seeks to ensure that before Part 5 of the Bill—if Part 5 survives—is implemented, there shall be the widest possible consultation with, particularly, those bodies of the law which would have to face the difficulties in court of dealing with the consequences of what we had agreed. That is the very simple purpose of the amendment.

The amendment does not specify that the consultation has to be agreed to or anything else; it simply says that there should be consultation and the results placed in the Libraries of the two Houses. It is a simple requirement which could reasonably be complied with. It may well be that the consultation will take place anyway without any need for the amendment. If that happens to be the case, no one will be more delighted than I. I beg to move.

Lord Monson: I could speak for 10 or more minutes on this amendment and Part 5 of the Bill generally, but I would not be popular with the Committee if I were to do so at this time of day—or, indeed, at any other time of day.

Perhaps I may draw the Committee's attention to a fact which, as far as I am aware, was not raised either at Second Reading or during the first day in Committee when Part 5 was largely dealt with. It has been an offence since 1987 in Northern Ireland—the order was passed in 1986 but came into effect in 1987—to Xstir up" religious hatred. XStir up" is an interesting verbal construction in so far as it implies that the hatred is already there, bubbling away beneath the surface, ready to be stirred up at any moment. But this is perhaps not the moment to go further into that.

However, in 13 years there have been only four convictions, and the longest sentence imposed was six months imprisonment. Bearing in mind the perennial passions aroused by religion in Northern Ireland when compared to England and Wales and, to a slightly lesser extent, Scotland, two conclusions can be drawn.

4 Dec 2001 : Column 825

The first is that such legislation is scarcely necessary; the second is that experience proves that in the rare cases of conviction a two-year maximum sentence is more than adequate. Seven years is quite unnecessary.

Lord Goldsmith: The amendment seeks to stop both the incitement to religious hatred and the religiously aggravated offences in Part 5 from coming into force until after a formal consultation process has taken place. It ill becomes a lawyer like me to take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, for describing the consultation recommended in the amendment as Xthe widest possible consultation", but it is a consultation which consists solely of lawyers. If one were going to have a consultation, one would think in terms of a much wider group in any event, including those in the community.

Given that I was privileged to be the chairman of the Bar Council, as a matter of personal pride I should have liked to have seen it described by its proper name rather than as the XBar Association". That sounds to me a much less distinguished body than the one I was privileged to lead.

I do not want to repeat what I said at Second Reading and during the first day in Committee on this part of the Bill—I wish simply to summarise—but the critical point is that there are people who have already sought to incite hatred against religious groups and to drive divisions between communities in this country. There are consistent reports of assaults motivated by religious hatred and of churches and mosques being attacked and damaged. The reality is that some law-abiding, peaceful people are in fear of their lives because others wrongly associate their religion with terrorism. That is why these provisions are included in the Bill. It is why we want the provision to which the amendment relates—if Members in both Houses are content that it should remain in the Bill—to come into force not in three months' time after a group of lawyers, however distinguished, have been consulted, but now.

I draw attention to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that this is rather an odd amendment in any event. It does not require any agreement. It does not require any particular review after the agreement. It simply imposes a delay while a particular group of people are consulted before the provisions can come into force. If those provisions

4 Dec 2001 : Column 826

should come into force, as we have suggested that they should in order to deal with a present situation, they should not be delayed for this process of consultation. I recognise that there was a slower process of consultation in 1998 in relation to racially aggravated offences. But that is not the position that we believe we are in at the moment.

In short, the amendment would do no more than delay the coming into force of the provisions. If, as we hope, Members will be persuaded that they should come into force, they should not be delayed by this particular process

Incitement to religious hatred is not a new idea. It goes back at least to the Law Commission's report on blasphemy, where the subject was first raised. It has been touched on from time to time since then, and the proposed framework—as I ventured to suggest previously—is the tried and tested framework for incitement to racial hatred and racially aggravated offences. So the principles and the framework are there already. I suggest, therefore, that there is no need to consult on that framework, and I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

I acknowledge the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. Again, without responding directly to what he said, perhaps I may respectfully direct his attention to my remarks at Second Reading and on the first day in Committee, when I set out the Government's response to the points that he has made as to the importance of these issues. I hope that that will be of assistance.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. I apologise profoundly to him for making a mistake over the title of the Bar Council. I am in fact responsible neither for drafting the amendment nor for its being before the Committee. So I plead complete ignorance in every sense of the term.

I am satisfied with the noble and learned Lord's explanation. With that background, and at this hour, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 185A and 185B not moved.]

Clauses 125 and 126 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with an amendment.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before midnight.

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