New Clause 1 - Protection of freedom of expression

Racial and Religious Hatred Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:15 pm ar 30 Mehefin 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

‘Nothing in Part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986 (c. 64) shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy or dislike of particular religions or their adherents, or of any other belief system or its adherents, or proselytising one’s own religion or belief system or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising theirs.’.—[Mr. Grieve.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General 1:30, 30 Mehefin 2005

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We approach the end of the process and return to a topic that we considered this morning. The new clause sets out the provisions that protect freedom of expression so that they can be read alongside the text   of the Bill. I hope that in practice everything contained in that clause would remain permissible. Indeed, if I understand the Government’s intention correctly, that will certainly be the case. I infer from the way the Minister put his and the Government’s case that they intend that all the things that I include in the new clause should be permissible, and that the only qualifier they might wish to add would be about the tone of the language used.

I would like to hear the Minister’s response on that point, because quite apart from the merits or demerits of the new clause, the Committee will be interested to tease out whether there is anything in it that the Government find objectionable and that they think would be caught in certain circumstances. For example, proselytising one’s own religion or belief system of necessity means making severe criticisms of other belief systems, but I understand that the Government are trying to prevent that. The Minister will be able to clarify that point. However, if there is nothing in the new clause that the Minister finds objectionable, why cannot we have it?

I suggest that it might be quite useful to have such a general statement alongside the Bill, even in the state in which the Minister wishes it to be passed into law, as it would provide reassurance to religious organisations and groups about what they are still able to do. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that some of the main anxieties about the Bill, expressed by a wide range of diverse religions and sects, particularly those that proselytise, are that it will adversely affect them.

Others, too, are concerned, including secular organisations, comedians and many others. I accept that some of them will not be covered, although I should have thought that the new clause would provide some protection to secularists and humanists who wish to engage in vigorous criticism of religious doctrine and believe. I think that they, too, would benefit. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.

I must apologise; when we finished this morning I circulated copies of the famous paper that I alluded to in earlier days, but I was unable to secure further copies because of the number of engagements that I had in the intervening period. However, I hope that those members of the Committee who have seen it and had the opportunity to read it will understand what it was about its tone and content that I was alluding to.

The document did not seem to seek to stir up hatred against anyone, but it was undoubtedly of a highly polemical nature and, as I said to the Minister, it was likely to be insulting. I hope that a document of that kind would not lead to prosecution. Although I may disagree with some of its content, think the tone rather strident in places and think that the person writing it may not be the world’s best theologian—although it is probably dicey for me to discuss Islamic theology—I would be unhappy if it was to be criminalised under the Bill. The views would seem to be sincerely expressed, albeit that some might find them uncomfortable or shocking and disagree with them vehemently; but I   believe that everybody ought to be unhappy if the document were to be criminalised. That is why I want to tease out a little more what it is in such expressions of view that the Government seek to criminalise.

I very much hope that new clause 1 constitutes a clear statement of what is acceptable in a religious context; and, in that context, that the document would fall within it. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view, so that we can debate that point.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right; this is interesting territory, which we have covered in earlier debates. He invites me to make the Government’s position clear, and I do so again: it is not our intention that jokes, lampooning, serious or robust comments about religious belief, proselytising, or preaching would be covered in court by that offence. However, he challenges the Committee to find a way of expressing that, and of making it perfectly clear that legitimate comment can be made and will not be caught by the legislation without creating additional loopholes and compromising the offence that we seek to introduce.

Reading the scriptures, however robust the language of the passage might be, will not caught by this legislation. However, if we stated that in the Bill, someone could use words directly from scripture in a context and with an intention to incite hatred. That is our dilemma. In principle, I would be happy to for the Bill to say that nothing in it means that people cannot tell jokes or quote from the scriptures. The Home Secretary indicated that on Second Reading The problem is that if we word that too loosely, we create a loophole. That is the dilemma that I face, as the Minister, and which we face as a Committee.

My belief is that new clause 1 does not get the balance right, which is why I cannot support it, and why I shall ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it. Of itself, expressing dislike of a religious or belief system would not be caught by the Bill. However, by using words in a certain way, somebody may be able to argue that they have a defence because of what is in the Bill, but are getting away with the serious offence of inciting hatred.

The other point that is worth making is that the new clause would weaken the race-hate legislation. The hon. Gentleman would acknowledge, I think, that it would change the test relating to race-hate, and that is not something that we would seek to do through this Bill. In principle, I do not have a problem with including something in the Bill that would give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks, but I am not content to include something that would, at the same time, create a loophole, allowing people to incite hatred about people because of their religious belief. That is the dilemma that we face, and I am afraid that the new clause does not help us.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I hope that the Minister will forgive me when I say that I find his answer slightly depressing because he clearly understood the force of the argument that I was making in the new clause. However, he highlighted the Government’s dilemma—which I understand—that accepting what appears to be a straightforward and, to my mind,   rather anodyne statement of freedom of speech might lead to the intentions behind the Bill being subverted. I find that extraordinary, although it does not surprise me, because it is inherent in the manner and the loose terminology evident throughout the whole Bill, and in the fact that we are touching on areas that are so complicated.

This is a Bill about criminalising tone of discussion. People will be criminalised if the tone of their discussion is seen to be too hostile or confrontational. That is a very difficult thing to analyse, and it leaves the individual in a quandary as to what is supposed to happen to him. On top of that, we know that the quandary will be greater because it is the Attorney-General who will decide whether the hammer should be brought down on their head. The truth, I fear, is that the Minister’s reluctance to accept new clause 1 highlights the internal inconsistencies in the Bill as a whole.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Llafur, Leyton and Wanstead

I agree with the Minister and point out the problem of a loophole. Could not an individual maintain that racism or religious hatred is his belief system? Could not he use the new clause as a defence in those circumstances?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I said on Second Reading, and I stand by it, that if I were a member of the British National party of no particular religious persuasion sufficient to moderate my views and behaviour I would worship Thor and Wotan, which I gather some BNP members already do. I would set up a temple at which I would regularly seek to worship. On the back of that I could carry quite a lot of religious beliefs, including ones about racial supremacy, and I could argue that anyone who attacked those views was inciting religious hatred against me.

Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Llafur, Leicester South

Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the new clause would give the BNP the pretext to do precisely what we fear?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

It is quite the reverse. My point is that under the Bill as it stands, any group that can claim the protection of having its philosophical views expressed as a religion will be able to demand—the Attorney-General may not agree to it—that any criticism of its views and beliefs should be prohibited on the grounds that it is an incitement of hatred of its religion.

I do not particularly want to read the text again, but I remind hon. Members that the document I circulated contained harsh criticisms of Islam and Islamic beliefs and practices. I have no idea whether the criticisms are accurate, but they are criticisms of some of the practices and beliefs of another faith and of the potential social consequences flowing from them. I have no idea whether that document would be considered an incitement to religious hatred. Although it makes some conciliatory noises too, someone reading it might well conclude that Islam was a horrible faith and its adherents were nasty people. But Muslims would be entitled under this Bill to claim protection from those views on the grounds that they   are an incitement of hatred against them. Exactly the same thing would happen to the BNP if it succeeded in setting up a worship system in which it said that its views about the need for races to live apart were derived from some theological mumbo-jumbo to which it adhered.

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

The hon. Gentleman, as ever, is speaking eloquently about the new clause, but sometimes he forgets other elements of the Bill. He is forgetting the need to prove intention or at least awareness in the mind of the person who sent the e-mail that he intended to incite hatred on the grounds of religious belief. He speaks about the belief, but he forgets about the intention. I ask him, gently, to keep both in mind at the same time.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

Surely that goes contrary to the point we were debating this morning. It difficult to know someone’s intention, but reading the document it was not my impression that the person was intending to foment religious hatred. However, it is quite another kettle of fish to ask whether, having regard to all the circumstances, the words in that document are likely to be seen or heard by a person in whom they are likely to stir up religious hatred. It is perfectly possible that if such a document were read by someone who was troubled by and hostile to the presence of Muslims in Britain, he might be encouraged to feel considerable hatred of Muslims.

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

This is an important point. The court would have to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that either the individual who sent him the e-mail intended it to incite hatred on the grounds of religious belief, or that he was aware that in sending the e-mail he was acting in a way that was threatening, abusive or insulting—in other words that he was aware of the impact that it would have. I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep that in mind when he is speaking about the level of tests that apply elsewhere in the legislation.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General 1:45, 30 Mehefin 2005

I understand the Minister’s point, but I assure him that I have kept that in mind. He may recollect that when we discussed the document earlier, I said that I did not think it was necessarily threatening but I could see that portions of it would be deeply insulting. Anybody reading it can see that. There are criticisms of many things—Muslim practices, beliefs and history—all of which would be regarded as insulting.

My experience with Muslims living in my constituency was that the complaints that they brought to me after 9/11 were centred around comments about Islam and Muslims in the mainstream press, which I do not think would be prosecuted in a month of Sundays. What bothered them was the climate in which they were viewed as in some way distinct, and those are the foundations of the word “Islamophobia”, which means fear rather than hatred of Islam. The hatred of Islam probably comes next in sequence.

That is why this is such a difficult area: there are some serious issues. As we are effectively setting out a structure to fetter free speech for some higher or general community good, and while the Government are insisting that they do not intend to prevent those with religious beliefs or no religious beliefs from doing what is described in new clause 1, the Committee is entitled to know why including what is quite an anodyne statement would scupper the Bill. The truth is that it causes difficulty because there is a mutual incompatibility between the two—an incompatibility that will apparently be reconciled by the poor old Attorney-General sitting in an office and deciding whether to plump for one side of a case or the other, leaving to the side completely what juries will make of it all.

For the moment, I shall withdraw the new clause, but I would ask the Minister one thing. I do not know when Bill will return on Report—

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

That does not give the Minister long, but I urge him to consider the new clause carefully. As he has acknowledged that the Home Secretary has accepted that something along the lines of it might be desirable, I set him this challenge: can he find a form of words that leaves the Government comfortable that they will achieve their objectives but provides the reassurance that the new clause would provide to those of religious belief and none? If he can, I will be delighted to consider it carefully and, irrespective of my other views on the Bill, support it. Might I also suggest—I hope not improperly—that if he cannot find such a form of words, that might be a reason for dropping the Bill completely?

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill to the House.

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

I thank you, Mr. Benton, for stepping into the breach this afternoon, and I thank Mr. Gale and Mr. O’Hara for their stewardship of the Committee and for helping to keep us in order at all times. I thank all hon. Members on both sides of the Committee for participating in the interesting and challenging debates. Even when we have disagreed, we have done so with the usual courtesy.

In his last remarks, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield issued me with a challenge; I remind him of the challenge that the previous Home Secretary gave us when we were considering the sexual offences   legislation. If we had resolved that, we would have had jeroboam of champagne between us, but he never had to pay for it.

I thank the Whips for keeping us going steadily with a sense with direction and purpose. I thank also Mr. Lee and his colleagues for their work, the Hansard writers, and my officials. Those officials who attended our proceedings did the whole Committee a great service, occasionally through the words uttered by me, as Minister, and in other ways, because, obviously, officials are open to questions, comment and inquiries from members of the Committee.

Although the Bill is small, it has engendered a lot of public debate, and I thank all members of the public, whatever their views, for participating. This is democracy at work. I have said several times that I will reflect on the whole of the Committee’s debates, and I will do that. I look forward to our further considerations.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I, too, Mr. Benton, thank you, Mr. Gale and Mr. O’Hara for chairing the Committee. I thank all participants in the proceedings, and the staff who helped us in our deliberations. It has been an interesting Committee, which I, for one, found enjoyable.

I also thank the Whips. For the first time since I have been in the House, we have had a Committee that had enough time properly to consider the legislation. That was done by providing an extension that doubled the time available. In fact, we have not made use of all that time, but that has allowed us to deliberate at a steady and sensible pace, to take breaks at sensible moments, and to come to new topics rather more clear-headed than we might otherwise have. The Committee has been a model of its kind. If that practice continues, and if it is the way things are going, I will no longer vote against programme motions. For that I would need some persuasion that in matters more complicated we can carry out our scrutiny with similar good sense. I thank everyone, particularly you, Mr. Benton, for sharing the proceedings.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I, too, thank you, Mr. Benton, and the other Chairmen for helping me through my first Committee. I have found the debates interesting. Clearly, I do not agree with the decisions that were made, or that the Bill should proceed further, and I retain the view that it is wrong in principle. However, it has been a thoughtful debate and I thank everyone for their contribution.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

I shall ensure that those kind remarks are passed on to my co-Chairmen.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at eight minutes to Two o’clock.