HC Deb 15 September 2004 vol 424 cc1272-3 2.32 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a criminal offence of desecrating national flags: to establish penalties in relation to the offence; and for connected purposes. This Bill was promoted by the letters that I received from my constituency and elsewhere following scenes of the burning of our Union flag on the streets of London earlier this year. National flags—the emblem of a nation state—do not belong to, or represent, a Government or a policy; they belong to all of us. Most people have a sense of possession and belonging whether they were born in a country or whether it becomes their adoptive home. They identify with their flags, often with pride, as we saw in Athens at the Olympic games.

Love of country and the symbols of nationhood are deemed by some today to be politically incorrect. I do not share that view. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I empathise with those who find it grossly offensive to see our flag desecrated, as defined by the dictionary as to violate the sacred character of an object". Even more so, that inflames anger when there appears to be no redress. Such actions in a public place not only offend; in some instances, they incite racial hatred and can lead to violence.

In studying how other countries have approached the problem, I find that many other countries have enacted legislation to include penalties of both fines and imprisonment. Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal and India have all enacted such legislation, and some countries, such as Norway and Japan, have legislated specifically in respect of foreign flags, knowing how offensive it is if those flags are destroyed in their countries.

The Bill does not seek to trivialise the use of the flag where it has been adapted, for example, in the design of garments. I have received a certain amount of correspondence about the use of the flag in underwear design, and I want to make it clear to the House that the Bill does not seek to prohibit that sort of fun. Nor would I oppose the Union flag being incorporated in advertising or projected on the front of Buckingham palace, as we have seen in the past.

The Bill is a direct response to the silent majority who expect action to be taken when acts of desecration take place. Last Sunday, the Sunday Express carried out a telephone poll to find out what its readers thought about the act of burning the Union flag and whether they thought that that should be made a criminal act. I was pleased that 1,096 people spent their own money to respond to that poll and that 98 per cent. said that there should be such legislation. Additionally, such a measure would have the support of the Victoria Cross Society.

I am only too well aware of the limitations of a ten-minute Bill, so although I hope that mine will proceed, I am perhaps more realistically addressing the Government Front Bench in the hope that time will be found to include such a provision in a Home Office Bill. If the Government fail to do that, I hope that my Front Bench, when we come to office after the next general election, will include the measure in an early Home Office Bill.

12.36 pm
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)

I had not intended to speak until I heard what the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said. It would not be right for the House to allow a Bill that would restrict freedom of expression and free speech to pass unchallenged.

I accept that many people are offended when they see the burning—or what they describe as the desecration—of the national flag, and I agree with the hon. Lady that using and supporting the flag should not be seen as politically incorrect, whether that is in the context of sporting occasions or supporting the nation. I also accept that a flag is the emblem of a national state and that it belongs not to the Government but to all of us. However, she paid no attention to the requirement that the House and country should have to recognise that freedom of speech and expression should be allowed as long as other people are not damaged. People in this country must accept that others will have opinions and ways of expressing those opinions that may insult them, so it is wrong to use words such as "desecration" and to consider things to be sacred in such a way as to criminalise freedom of expression.

There is a tradition of burning flags as an expression of disgust—sometimes outright disgust—at something that is done in one's name by one's country. I would not use that method because I appreciate how insulting it can be, but nevertheless other people choose to. Short of covering the act under considerations of public order and burning in general, it should not be made a criminal offence, so I urge the House to oppose the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. Christopher Chope, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, Dame Marion Roe, Mr. Andrew Rosindell and Angela Watkinson.