Racial and Religious Hatred Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee am ar 28 Mehefin 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Mr. Edward O’Hara in the Chair]

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South 10:30, 28 Mehefin 2005

Copies of the programme motion agreed by the Programming Sub-Committee earlier this morning are available in the Room. The order of consideration is subject to debate, and I remind the Committee that debate on it may continue for up to half an hour.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I beg to move,

That the Bill be considered in the following order, namely, Clause 1, the Schedule, Clause 2, new Clauses and new Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill.

May I say how good it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. O’Hara? You chaired the first Committee that I sat on back in 1997; that was a pleasant experience. I know that later in our proceedings we may be joined by Mr. Amess, and we look forward to that too.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and I could describe ourselves as old sparring partners now. We have been at this for more than two years. Although we have often had to agree to disagree, we have always done so in a sensible and constructive spirit. I expect that to continue. This is the first time that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and I have been in our corresponding roles. I look forward to his contribution and that of other hon. Members. It is interesting that although this is the third time that the Government have proposed these measures, almost half the members of the Committee are new Members of Parliament. That will add to our discussions.

May I offer an apology to hon. Members, in particular to the hon. Members for Beaconsfield and for Shipley (Philip Davies)? During my closing remarks on Second Reading, they both asked me to give way—the hon. Member for Shipley did so repeatedly—but the circumstances did not allow it. My normal custom is to give way at each and every opportunity, and I assure hon. Members that that will be the case in Committee. Whenever they ask me to give way or to clarify something I shall be happy to do so.

This is a two-clause, one-schedule Bill. It is tightly focused, and I am sure that our debates, which will be lively and interesting, will also be tightly focused under your chairmanship, Mr O’Hara. Already many amendments have been tabled. It is our job as a Committee to ensure that we fully scrutinise the Government’s proposals and the amendments. I have made it clear that my motivation in proposing this measure is my belief that it is the right thing to do. It removes an anomaly in the law whereby certain religious groups—Jews and Sikhs—are protected by   race hate legislation, but other religious groups are not. In seeking to close the law we are responding to the urgings both of faith leaders across the spectrum and the police.

I reiterate the point that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I made on Second Reading: we are prepared to engage and we are prepared to listen. Obviously, we would be foolish if we did not consider any sensible proposals that could improve the Bill. There are many issues to be debated. They will doubtless include what we mean by “religious belief” and “hatred”, and whether the use of religious language or symbols can be taken as a proxy for race. There will no doubt be discussions about the so-called likely limb and some of the changes that we are proposing there, and the circumstances in which an offence may occur. All the amendments, taken together, will take us right across the full range of the Bill.

I am pleased that we have reached a sensible agreement about the number of sittings that we will need. In view of the earlier remarks of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I think that we will be comfortably able to do our job properly within the time that has been allocated.

I conclude by saying that my motive in introducing the Bill is to deal with that small minority of people who currently seek to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religious belief. We are dealing with an anomaly in the law and closing a gap in the law. Some members of the Committee will take a different view of the proposed changes in the law. I know that despite our disagreements, those hon. Members share my commitment to tackling racial discrimination and race hatred in our society. We will be debating the means by which we do that and the measures that we propose. I do not in any way suggest, and never will in these debates, that hon. Members on either side of the Committee have a motive other than tackling religious and race discrimination; that is a common bond between us. However, we will debate and disagree about the manner in which we propose to tackle it.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O’Hara, and echo the Minister’s statement that we will enjoy sitting under your chairmanship. I also welcome the Minister to the Committee. We are indeed old sparring partners, but the sparring has always been enjoyable, and I have little doubt that this Committee will be as interesting. I also thank the Government for allocating enough time. This is the first Bill, under the new rules of programming, for which I am confident that we have allocated enough time. In fact, we probably have more time than we need, but that does not matter; if we finish early, so be it. The original proposal was for two sittings, which made me slightly anxious that we might not have enough time to scrutinise the Bill properly, but four sittings offer us ample opportunity to do our job.

I look forward to the debate. I agree entirely with the Minister that, whether we have doubts about the Bill or earnestly support it, we share the same   objective; we all wish to see a peaceful society, in which discourse is conducted in moderate fashion, and people behave with moderation. However, the question is whether the Bill will achieve its intended effect, and we have some serious reservations about that. I hope that the amendments that have been tabled—doubtless a few more will be tabled during our debates—will provide an opportunity for examining the Bill carefully, for looking at available options for improving and altering it, and for teasing out the actual effect of the detailed words, which is not always understood.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O’Hara. I have had the privilege of serving with you on many occasions. I have also served on a number of Standing Committees with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. As the Minister said, this is the first occasion on which we have had the opportunity to serve with him, and I look forward to that.

We had an excellent debate on the Bill on Second Reading. I engaged in a radio interview on the subject with the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)—I do not think that he is a member of the Committee—which was broadcast at the weekend. He said that he thought that that debate was “Parliament at its best”, which is an expression that I particularly dislike. However, with that one reservation, I felt that it showed Parliament in a good light. There are substantial issues of principle relating to the Bill and there are honest differences on those issues. Those differences were handled well during the debate on Second Reading, and I hope that the same tenor will be maintained throughout the sittings of the Committee.

I should at least make passing reference to the motion that is before us. I, too, take the view that there is ample time to deal with the Bill but, as ever, I hope that it will be the case in the Committee that less is more.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

I have some preliminary announcements to make before we proceed to the substance of the Bill. I remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments; I am sure that they will co-operate in that. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, and we would be grateful not to be put in the position of having to take that decision.

I also ask hon. Members to ensure that mobile phones and pagers are either turned off or in silent mode during Committee sittings.