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Lord Drayson: My Lords, I assure the House that the response time needed by the MoD for the supply of those helicopters, through the C130, has been very short. That has been in response to an evolving situation of the particular type of heavy-lift helicopter that is required for the type of terrain and weather conditions now faced. The earlier helicopters to which I referred were of a lighter type for the earlier conditions; the Chinooks are to respond to what is happening now.

Lord Garden: My Lords, as a former Chinook pilot, I can say that it is a unique capability, and I am glad that we have them there. However, I have said time and again that we have inadequate numbers of support helicopters in our fleet, a situation made worse by having eight grounded through the messing up of procurement that the PAC considered earlier in the year. In the light of the Minister's Answer to a Written Question yesterday that there were no plans to increase our numbers of support helicopters, can he say when he will change the priorities? After all, if we are to be a force for good in the world, we had better have enough of those helicopters.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Lord is right in that the heavy lift capability in our helicopters is vital to our going forward. We have put in place in the Ministry of Defence a new helicopter strategy to get the balance right between the heavy lift and other requirements. The noble Lord is right, as the NAO has reported, that the total number of helicopters that we have available is an issue. We are putting significant financial resources into addressing that point.

Business

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, with the leave of the House, immediately following the debate on the first group of amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, my noble friend Lord Adonis will repeat a Statement entitled "Schools White Paper".

Estate Agents (Independent Redress Scheme) Bill [HL]

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to amend the Estate Agents Act 1979 to make provision for independent consumer redress in connection with the sale and purchase of residential property. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.—(Lord Dubs.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and ordered to be printed.
 
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Racial and Religious Hatred Bill

3.19 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds]:

Lord Hunt of Wirral moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Lord said: First, perhaps I may say how pleased the Committee is to see the Minister in her rightful place on the Front Bench.

Amendment No. 1 stands in my name and in those of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill—the principal architect of these important clauses—the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, and the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield. For the convenience of the Committee, it may be useful if I speak also to Amendments Nos. 2, 31 and 32, which I believe are consequential to Amendment No. 1.

I make it clear that we yield to no one in the degree to which we all abhor, deprecate and deplore the very idea of hating someone because of his religion. It is a thoroughly bad thing if anyone attempts, through whatever medium, to inspire or instil such hatred in others. We must not, however, fall into the trap of what Rowan Atkinson described last week as thinking, "Oh yes, religious hatred. That sounds like a bad thing. Let's have a law against it". Why? Because it is the bedrock of any tolerant, liberal and free society that we must all learn to live according to certain first principles. One of the most fundamental of those is that, from time to time, we must tolerate other people expressing sentiments or engaging in activities that we find unappealing or, indeed, distasteful.

The right to cause offence is infinitely more important and fundamental to our way of life than any right not to be offended. As English PEN put it in what I consider to be an admirable campaign: free expression is no offence and should not become one. Of course, certain lines must be drawn between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable to the vast majority of citizens. There is now widespread acceptance of the principle that offences can be aggravated if they are motivated entirely or in part by sentiments that are generally regarded as repugnant, extreme and unacceptable. We all know and accept that. However, it is the mark of a tolerant, civilised and mature society that discordant, disagreeable and even dissident voices are heard and freely challenged in rational debate and not silenced by the courts.
 
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As my right honourable friend David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, pointed out so eloquently in another place:

The best remedy for evil ideas is more speech, not less speech. You cannot promote tolerance by limiting freedom of expression. Tolerance and freedom of speech buttress one another. They are inseparable siblings, not alternatives.

Our debate is beautifully augmented by the publication only yesterday of the report on this Bill by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which raises important questions about the implications of the Bill. The committee's considered view is that,

I thank their Lordships for producing those timely comments because they strengthen our belief that in its present form the Bill goes far too far. We thought that the Government were beginning to recognise that. Certainly 80 per cent of the speeches at Second Reading stressed that. We are therefore disappointed that no government amendments are proposed.

I even offered two weeks ago to sit down with the Government—Ministers, officials and parliamentary draftsmen—and my colleagues to see if we could agree the necessary changes. Sadly, until today, no one has been in touch with me to accept that offer. So, thanks to the skill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, we are now presenting the Committee with this group of amendments. We have come to the conclusion that rather than amending Part III of the Public Order Act 1986, which relates to racial hatred, it would be far more sensible to leave it untouched. Instead, we are now seeking to add an entirely new schedule to that Act to deal with religious hatred. That vastly improves the Bill before us in two important ways.

At a stroke, it makes the Bill far more comprehensible and readily understood for the expert and the lay person alike. It also delivers a clear Bill dealing specifically with religious hatred and not interspersed with racial hatred, just as the Labour Party promised in its manifesto earlier this year. So we enable the Government to fulfil that commitment and, indeed, to do so in much more specific terms than originally set out in the Bill. In other words, we believe that we have created a far better opportunity to do what Ministers say that they want to do; protecting the person and not the belief.

We have therefore tabled amendments that would maintain the criminal offence of threatening, but would remove the words "abusive" and "insulting"
 
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from the proposed offence and move them into the proposed freedom of expression defence. Let me explain why. Ministers say that they wish to defend people as opposed to their beliefs. Is it possible, however, to defend them from hatred as people while also preserving the right of others to criticise their beliefs? In other words, is it possible to draw a distinction between a group of people who share a religion or an ideology and the natural desire to protect them from hatred and on the other hand the religion or ideology itself? If someone insults my beliefs, I can perfectly well argue that they insult me too. They/we can amount to the same thing, especially in religious matters.

Similarly, if someone is abusive about my beliefs, once again I should be free to argue that they are abusing me too. Therefore, if we wish to apply criminal sanctions to protect people from feeling insulted or abused when someone criticises or attacks their beliefs, it is obvious that the beliefs themselves as well as the individual who feels insulted or abused are being protected. In both cases it can be impossible to separate the person from the belief.

Protecting an individual from such an offence with regard to his or her race is entirely reasonable. I have always strongly supported such moves, which I believe to be sensible and admirable. Beliefs are different, however, not least because we are entitled to change them and do change them from time to time. We choose them; they do not choose us. They have a life of their own, as it were. Ministers say that they want to protect the person and not the belief, and threatening someone on account of their beliefs is clear-cut. It deserves to be a criminal offence and we accept that in these amendments. However, if these amendments are accepted the Bill will indeed apply clearly, straightforwardly and exclusively to the person and not to the belief. It will protect people, as Ministers quite rightly say it should. These amendments do not affect the essence of the Bill; they seek only to provide much highly regarded and much needed reassurance to protect freedom of speech, which will benefit not just a minority and not just a majority but every single one of us.

I will leave it to my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, to go into the amendments in greater detail. However, I shall add that we have repeatedly been told that the Bill is not intended to affect performing artists, preachers and the like, but Ministers have never adequately explained why that is not made clear and explicitly guaranteed in the Bill. We now give them the opportunity to do that. In fact, in the other place many amendments were tabled from all parts of that House and by different parties to guarantee the freedom of expression that Ministers say they want, but none was accepted. I hope that that position will change today. We will continue to ask Ministers to explain how the reassurance about which I speak can be gained without explicit and express protection.

What are the guarantees against the encroachment not only of religious thought police but also of self-censorship, which is perhaps the greatest expression of
 
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free expression in a liberal democracy? We have to face the fact that if we make it a criminal offence to stir up hatred against a group of people, then we create a climate within which people will think twice about even criticising it. In turn, people will surely run shy of saying anything that might stir up hatred of the ideology or religion itself and also develop a fear of being critical of it, satirising it or even poking the slightest fun at it. It is no good Ministers claiming that there is no slippery slope to self-censorship because we all know that there is. Someone will also push out the boundaries of this type of legislation.

In any case—and I am sure that we will hear a lot about this in the debate—race and religion are different. To criticise the colour of someone's skin is irrational. To criticise someone's religion or politics is a wholly different matter. I could go so far as to say that it is a fundamental human right that we are able to do so. Of course there will be a price to pay in terms of freedom of expression should this legislation be passed in its present form. The question is whether it is a price worth paying. That is the case that Ministers need to make today. They must come out of simple bland denial and start giving us a much more specific argument. They have not done so up to now.

Let me explain why we need that in this debate. Our crucial fear is that the Bill is unnecessary and potentially damaging because it is more likely to inflame hatred than to subdue it. No government or parliament can legislate hatred out of existence however hard they try. But alongside this basic argument, we are entitled to ask why this legislation as presently drafted does not explicitly protect and entrench one of our oldest rights and freedoms, namely freedom of speech and expression. Can there be a greater responsibility on all of us than our responsibility to defend basic freedoms, and freedom of expression above all else? We all know that we live in dangerous and tense times. The weekend's events reminded us of that. But we must take care not to pass legislation which is likely to exacerbate our problems rather than diminish them. If any measure is brought before this House and this Parliament that may in any way inhibit our most cherished freedoms then, surely, there is a massive onus on its supporters to prove that the benefits dramatically, overwhelmingly and unarguably exceed the likely costs. At the moment, Ministers and their Bill palpably fail that test. I beg to move.


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