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Lord Judd: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I think that she has misinterpreted the point. The point made was that the law could not be a substitute for the culture. You do not win the battle by having the law; you do so by winning the culture.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can certainly understand my noble friend's point. We need both: law and culture working together in harmony, reinforcing and supporting each other, so that good practice and good behaviour are enhanced and not undermined. I am sure that my noble friend would agree with me on that.
There must be equality, for those who are religious, in the eyes of God and equality also in the eyes of the law. Therefore, we understand the Select Committee's conclusion that civil and criminal law should afford the same protection to people of all faiths and none. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the Government have not ducked their responsibility in that regard; nor do we share his assessment of what has happened in the past 20 years. I understand and hear his disappointment, but I do not share it, because the plethora of achievements in this area cannot be dismissed as small or insignificant.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich spoke very constructively about the basis of taking the issue forward, which is what today's debate is about. I listened with great interest to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, and of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich about the umbrella that the blasphemy laws provide. That was very much supported by the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, who described it as a canopy of protection.
As was made plain by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, the blasphemy laws are used rarely. The last successful private prosecution was in 1977, and there have been no public prosecutions since 1922. Given that context and the fact that blasphemy affords
The Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Viscount have touched ongives rise to a number of interesting, and some difficult, issues. We believe that those of religious faith deserve the best protection that the law will allow, including protection for their places of worship. There are only a limited number of prosecutions under the Act, and it has never been used for offences against non-Christian places of worship. We feel that the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act offers additional protection in only a small number of cases, as most offences against, or in places of, religious worship would already be covered by other criminal offences, such as criminal damage and public order offences. Therefore, we do not feel that reformulating the legislation would offer any more meaningful protection than exists under current laws.
Your Lordships know that we attempted to introduce a new offence of incitement to religious hatred in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. The proposal was withdrawn, due to objections raised in this House and championed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and ably supported by my noble friend Lord Desai, among others. The withdrawal of those provisions was based very much on the opposition of those who argued, as they have done today, that it bore little relation to the Bill's main theme of countering terrorism, and that there should be separate legislation aimed at protecting religious beliefs and their expression, following a proper public debate and a weighing of options.
They were also concerned that such a measure would impact adversely on free speech. I hope that the report's examination of the incitement to religious hatred issue and today's debate will have gone some way to addressing many noble Lords' concerns that the proposal to introduce such a new offence was not receiving proper independent scrutiny in Parliament. Today's debate has provided an excellent opportunity for a fuller consideration of the issue in the context of a wider debate on religious offences, as has the time that has elapsed between that Bill and this debate. I must take this opportunity to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for his kindness and understanding in relation to the efforts that the Government have made. I will, of course, respectfully agree with his assessment.
In terms of balance between protecting religious groups and protecting freedom of expression, it is clearly essential to preserve this country's long and cherished tradition of freedom of speech. People must continue to be allowed to criticise beliefs and practices
It would be necessary to ensure that the criminal threshold for any proposed offence covers the harm that is being done, without unduly interfering with the rights of free expression as enshrined in human rights legislation. We believe that this can be done. I emphasise that, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the Government do not believe that it is necessary to define religion. What is important is that we deal with the hatred, because that is what is inherently offensive. That is what my noble friend Lord Rooker said when we were debating the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill in 2001. I do not hesitate to endorse that.
The evidence given to the Select Committee has shown that this is a matter of real concern for many communities, and the balance of opinion was in favour of the creation of the new offence. We heard that powerfully, I respectfully suggest, in the contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, and my noble friend Lady Uddin.
There is a level of pain being experienced in many communities that we should recognise. We also note the joint statement by the representatives of important organisations in most of the faith communities in this country, urging the Government to legislate against incitement to religious hatred as soon as possible and asking Members of both Houses to support such a move. Such a statement carries weight and must be taken seriously, not least as confirmation that faith communities perceive there to be a problem that must be addressed.
We are very aware of the concerns of many people, in particular, as I said, the Muslim community. As members of a religious group, they are not offered the same protection against incitement to hatred as exists for mono-ethnic faith groups such as Jews and Sikhs. We also know that Christians do not have that coverage either. The noble Lords, Lord Joffe and Lord Bhatia, and my noble friend Lady Uddin spoke in particular about that gap. We went into the debate from a position of being in principle in favour of introducing a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. If recent statements and representations made to the Home Office are any indication, there would appear to be as much, if not more, support for such a measure in the wider community as existed when the report was published a year ago. We will study the arguments that we have heard in the debate, before formulating measures to address the issues that have been raised, although I cannot at this stage indicate when an opportunity to legislate on the matter might be found. Noble Lords will know the extent of the legislation that is to come to the House in this Session.
We have no plans for a general reform of the law on hate crime. We recognise that there are groups other than racial or religious groups who may be seen to be vulnerable to attack or vilification. We sought to deal with the specific areas of race and religion because those areas presented a particular problem that needed to be addressed and posed a threat to social cohesion. However, protection against hate crime has been extended to other groups. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 provided increased sentences for crimes aggravated by hatred of a person on the grounds of sexual orientation or disability. The wealth of evidence given to the committee shows the importance of religiously motivated crime for so many of our people and the direct impact that it has on their communities. To my noble friend Lord Desai, I say that it has been impossible for many people to distinguish between their religion, their racial origin or their faith. However, I acknowledge that, because of the racial element, Asian Muslims will have protection under the Race Relations Act that others may not have.
For that reason, we introduced the new racially and religiously aggravated offences to send a strong message that racist and religious crime would not be tolerated. The Crown Prosecution Service's policy on racist and religious crime was launched in July last year, outlining its commitment to prosecute racist and religious crime fairly, firmly and robustly. By putting policy into practice, the Crown Prosecution Service aims to build more effective cases and bring more offenders to justice. The latest CPS statistics show that there were only 18 fully finished religiously aggravated cases between 14 December 2001 and 31 March 2003. Although the numbers are small, there has been no suggestion that the prosecution authorities have had any problem with the new offences. In addition, the CPS keeps a running total of all religiously aggravated crime, including finished cases, cases still going through the system and cases in which the charge is amended to a different offence. As at 2 April 2004, there were 74 religiously aggravated cases being monitored by the Crown Prosecution Service, so there is an increasing number of cases in the system.
It is still early days for our awareness of religiously aggravated crime, and there is more work to be done building awareness and confidence that it will be tackled. The Home Office has created a faith communities unit, and part of its remit is to examine faith-related crime issues and their impact on communities, including the under-reporting of religiously motivated crime.
Much has been said about sentencing, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We note the concern that the introduction of statutory racially-aggravated and religiously-aggravated offences and the powers to increase sentences for racial and religious aggravation could create sentencing inconsistencies and make sentencing more complicated for the courts.
However, we are not aware that the introduction of those offences has, in practice, caused difficulties of that kind. The added complexity can be managed through sentencing guidelines. Any downside in terms of complexity is outweighed by the beneficial impact that specific aggravating factors can have in producing
The Criminal Justice Act 2003 created the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I know that the noble Viscount says "Well, isn't that it and don't we get rid of all the laws and complications". Bearing in mind the time, perhaps I may use a short form and say, "No". The Sentencing Guidelines Council will go a long way towards addressing the report's concerns about the new aggravated offences creating sentencing inconsistencies and making sentences complicated for the courts.
We have noted that one of the key conclusions of the Select Committee's report is that civil and criminal law should afford the same protection to people of all faiths and of none. In December 2003, the new Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations prohibit direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief in employment. The Government are working to disseminate good practice on those new regulations. They have worked with ACAS to produce good practice guidance and support an advice helpline for employers and employees.
Changes in society in recent years have not resulted in the ebbing of religious values and the consequent emergence of the United Kingdom as a secular state. Religious values continue to play a significant part in shaping social values. We recognise the value of the role that religion plays in people's lives in Britain today.
It is for that reason that we are being very careful. We have listened very carefully to all that has been said. We will take the report into account. I can certainly assure the House that the Government will be very careful in the way in which they take the matter forward, but it is a matter of which we are firmly seized.
Viscount Colville of Culross: My Lords, briefly at this time on a Thursday, I thank all those who have taken part in the debate. My colleagues on the Select Committee would have been extremely pleased to hear the gratifying comments that were made about the report. It was intended to be a contribution to the debate, and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, that the proceedings today mark a further step forward.
It is only part of the scene. The report concerned religious offences and deals therefore with criminal law. I take the point made by the right reverend Prelate that we need a full panoply by having the civil law as well. Some has recently been introduced, again coming from Europe, and that forms the other, very valuable, half of this exercise. Apart from the protection of places of worship and artefacts, which perhaps
An opportunity arose to deal with it in 2001, however careful were the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Desai, in discussing it, but this was not the issue at the root of what they were talking about. I believe that it now is and I was glad to hear the noble Baroness say that the Home Office will be very careful. However, it is being constructive and it is clear that this is a continuing dialogue between all concerned. I hope that perhaps one day we shall revert to this matter, if not quite yet. If the Home Office does bring forward legislation to deal with offences surrounding the incitement to religious hatred, then I shall want to look very carefully at the content and drafting because I do not think that it is at all easy to do.