HL Deb 30 January 2002 vol 631 cc314-40

9.8 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In doing so, I express my warmest thanks, first, to the Public Bill Office for its timely and effective advice on drafting; secondly, to the staff of the Library for the excellent notes they have produced; and, thirdly, to the Home Office for producing what is known as a Keeling schedule demonstrating how the Public Order Act would look if the amendments proposed in the Bill were made thereto. It was a matter of complaint during our proceedings on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill that it was extremely difficult to look backwards and forwards between that Bill and the Public Order Act. The production of the Keeling schedule is a tremendous advantage in trying to understand exactly what these proposals will do.

As your Lordships know, the proposals in the Bill have been canvassed on many previous occasions, most recently, as I said, during the proceedings on the anti-terrorism Bill. I shall refer, first, to Clause 2—I shall explain later why I am doing it this way round—the provisions of which are identical to the provisions on incitement to religious hatred that were left out of the anti-terrorism Bill—probably not because the House was against them per se, as I judged the tone of the discussions then, but rather on the grounds that it was considered unsatisfactory to put them in a Bill dealing with the effects of the dreadful crimes of llth September and the consequent changes that we needed to make in our legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, for instance, said that there was a case but that it was inappropriate to deal with it in that way.

I should point out—it was not a matter which received any attention during those proceedings—that in Northern Ireland provisions almost identical to these have been on the statute book since 1987. Presumably they have acted as a deterrent to religious incitement there. There is exactly the same wording as is already in Part 3 of the Public Order Act in relation to racial hatred offences and, as far as I am aware, there have been no difficulties of interpretation or of limiting freedom of expression and other of the anxieties expressed in our recent discussions.

People in Northern Ireland are well known for expressing themselves about religion in a robust manner, and the law has not altered that. Nor is the existence of the law a matter of controversy, as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission would confirm.

Returning to Great Britain, the Law Commission considered this matter in 1981, when it recalled that it had first been looked at as long ago as 1965 during the framing of the Race Relations Act. The proposition in 1981 was that the words "or religious" might be added to the law against incitement to racial hatred—as in this Bill—but at that time it was not considered a significant problem. In 1985 the Law Commission again considered the matter, but observed, how closely linked are the concepts of a 'racial group' … and membership of a group which is distinguished by … a common religion". Once again it concluded that legislating against incitement to hatred of people holding particular religious beliefs could be "a relatively simple task" on the lines now proposed.

If it is common ground that incitement to hatred of religious groups which are not defined by ethnic origin—including Muslims and Christians—does happen, then the question is whether it has now become a real and urgent threat to society requiring legislation, which it was not when the Law Commission reported in 1985. But if it is now, then, as the Law Commission foreshadowed, the logical way of dealing with it is to follow the existing law on religious incitement in Northern Ireland and the law on racial incitement in Britain as closely as possible. It would be intolerable to have one set of provisions in Northern Ireland on religious incitement and another completely different set in the rest of the country.

It would also be very confusing if the courts had to deal with dissimilar laws on racial and religious incitement, considering that in some cases ethnic and religious groups are one and the same. The definition of "religious hatred" follows exactly the same format as the existing definition of "racial hatred" in the Public Order Act, and the very nature of the phenomenon is identical. We are talking about hatred against a group of persons, whether they are defined by reference to their religion or race, as the case may be.

We have discussed at some length how this proposal can be reconciled with freedom of expression. I shall not go over the ground covered by the Attorney-General in relation to the anti-terrorism Bill when he explained how his discretion would be used to sanction criminal proceedings. I merely say that I hope that his draft guidance would apply to this Bill, as it would have done on that occasion.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that he accepted the principle that legislation in this area was desirable, as indeed did others in all quarters of the House. They felt, however, that incitement to religious hatred was important enough to be considered on its own. If that was the main reason why the House decided to remove what was then Clause 39 from the anti-terrorism Bill, and not because your Lordships considered there was no need for an offence of this kind, I hope that Clause 2 of this Bill meets the objection.

I now turn to Clause 1 of the Bill. I am dealing with it this way round because of the statement made during discussion on the anti-terrorism Bill by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark that, were the clauses regarding the incitement to religious hatred already on the statute book … we, from the Church of England, would view the departure of the blasphemy law with much easier hearts".—[Official Report, 10/12/01; col. 1178.] I believe that he was making the point, although he did not spell it out, that extreme conduct which might now be dealt with under the blasphemy law could sometimes be classified as a public order offence. But whereas blasphemy is treated as an offence only against the Christian religion, the religious incitement provisions in this Bill apply to a group from any religion or from none.

I ought to emphasise, because it seems to be widely misunderstood, that blasphemy has a much more limited meaning in law than it has in the dictionary. There is no prohibition on speaking or publishing opinions hostile to Christianity, or on denial of the existence of God. But the existing law on blasphemy applies only to the Christian religion. Incidentally, the notion that we have a choice between abolition and extension of the present uncertain law to all religions is a non-starter. If we wanted to encourage rivalry and animosity between religions, that would be a good way to do it. It was suggested at one time by a minority in the Law Commission that a law could be framed which extended blasphemy to every other religion.

The definition of blasphemous libel adopted by the trial judge in the case of Whitehouse v Lemon was the publication of any writing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible or some sacred subject using words that are scurrilous, abusive or offensive. The offence consists of attacking religious entities, not the religious group which believes in that particular set of entities. But the language used might be capable of having both effects: it could be at the same time "scurrilous, abusive or offensive" about the objects of a religion—of Christianity in the case of the existing law—and "threatening, abusive or insulting" and intended or likely to stir up hatred against the set of persons belonging to the faith which held those objects to be sacred.

There are many examples of this in the history of anti-semitism, where extreme criticism of the Jews' denial of Christ's divinity could not be separated from incitement to hatred of the Jews as a people. Christian theologians from St John Chrysostom onwards portrayed the Jews as Christ-killers, and it was not surprising that the use of that kind of language led to the social exclusion of Jews and the pogroms of medieval Europe, as well as being a factor in the aetiology of the holocaust, as many authors have shown.

There will be some circumstances, however, which theoretically could lead to prosecution under the blasphemy law but will no longer do so under the Public Order Act if this Bill is passed. It could hardly be said, for instance, that the poem in the Whitehouse v Lemon case was either intended to stir up religious hatred or was likely to do so, and such a case, if it occurred today, would not get to the stage of a full investigation by the police. But would a private prosecution under an 1866 statute be allowed by a judge if that case or one like it arose today? If those circumstances did ever arise, would not the Attorney-General use his power to take the case over and then offer no evidence? In 1976 there was still a great deal of homophobia, and Mary Whitehouse was a highly motivated and effective campaigner. The Gay News case should be seen as an aberration, without which we could now be looking back on 80 years without any court proceedings on blasphemy charges.

Subsection (2) of Clause 1 repeals all the religious offences listed by the Law Commission in its 1985 report on offences against religion and public worship. I apologise for the error, as Sections 3 and 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 have been repealed already. It was fairly difficult to go through all those ancient statutes and pick out the parts that were still in force.

The only provision that has been used in recent times is Section 2 of the 1860 Act, which criminalises any person who is guilty of, riotous, violent or indecent behaviour", in a place of worship or burial ground. This was used against protesters who interrupted a service attended by members of Mr Harold Wilson's government in 1968. They were protesting against what they alleged to be Mr Wilson's support for American policy in Vietnam. It was again used in 1973—I think that that was the last occasion—when persons were convicted under that section for having performed ceremonies to raise the dead in a churchyard. I am not sure why it should be a crime to try to raise the dead in a churchyard but not in any other place.

Our debates on these matters only a few weeks ago showed that your Lordships wanted an opportunity to examine them more thoroughly with a view to reaching well-thought-out decisions. Both religious incitement and blasphemy have been discussed on numerous occasions, but we have never had the benefit of knowing what is the sense of the faith communities and, indeed, of those who belong to no religion, who are now probably more numerous than any single religion.

It has been suggested that we might now obtain that advice by referring the Bill to a Select Committee—a practice that has been followed sparingly over the past half century. I should welcome such an opportunity for settling these issues definitively. As there will be many differences of opinion about the detail, I hope that there will be common ground that we should now face up to the two related issues that are dealt with in the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. (Lord Avebury.)

9.21 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on introducing the Bill. He has a long and distinguished career in human rights, equality and justice. I hope that the Bill will reach the statute book so that we can perhaps bring a religious discrimination Bill to the House for your Lordships' consideration in due course.

I am not against blasphemy laws. Indeed, I should very much like all religions and people to be protected from insults and attacks equally in law. As a Muslim, I am duty bound to respect equally Abraham, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed, peace be upon them. However, certain common law offences relating to religion and public worship are out of date and relate to only one section of our community. It is imperative that we amend our laws so that they are relevant to the multi-religious Britain of today.

Although the Law Commission in its 1985 report concluded that the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel should be abolished without replacement, two law commissioners argued for similar legislation to that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

I pay tribute to the Home Secretary for attempting to introduce religious hatred offences in the Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Act. I also thank the shadow Home Secretary, Mr Oliver Letwin, for acknowledging in the other place that vulnerable communities need to be protected—especially Muslim communities in the present crisis.

The European monitoring centre on racism and xenophobia has recently reported: Prejudice and hostility against Islamic communities are prevalent in all European member states, and have often led to discrimination against Muslims and their exclusion from mainstream socio-economic activities. Unfortunately, we have all witnessed an increase in such prejudice in recent months.

Since 11th September, attacks on the Muslim, Sikh and other Arab and Asian communities have increased by four times in some places. The Commission for Racial Equality reported an increase in attacks of more than 75 per cent on the Asian community in Tower Hamlets, for example. Far right racist groups openly attack the Muslim communities in the media and on their websites. There is no law to bring those people to justice. Muslim women wearing the hijah, Arab women in particular, have been subject to verbal abuse. Asian men and women in traditional clothes and Sikh men wearing turbans have all experienced harassment and mosques have even been fire-bombed. Racist groups have openly displayed posters and distributed leaflets inciting religious hatred in the north of England; and, sadly, even a few Asian religious groups offered support to the BNP in the hate campaign against Muslim communities.

There has been a growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the western media. The intentional use of anti-Islam terminology has featured in the media: words like, "fundamentalism", "terrorism has been linked to Islam", "militant Muslims", "Muslim terrorist groups", "Islamic terrorists" and "Muslim warlords" have been frequently used. International terrorism became synonymous with the Islamic religion. British Muslims have been at the receiving end of religious hatred, and yet have been expected to prove their loyalty to Britain and their "Britishness" time after time.

I have congratulated the Government on many occasions for the Derby and the Cambridge reports on religious discrimination. I joined the Labour Party 26 years ago because Labour stood for equality, fairness and justice. That is why I am proud that our Government are showing their intolerance to the incitement of religious hatred, and are leading the way for a culturally and religiously diverse but harmonious society. I feel proud to stand before audiences in Asia and the Middle-East, Europe and America, to say that British Muslims have more rights in the United Kingdom than anywhere else in the world. Yet, we are still not equal in law. Jewish and Sikh communities are protected under the Race Relations Act 1976—and rightly so—but other communities are not. That is why we must support this Bill, and also introduce religious discrimination legislation.

The Public Order Act of 1986 has two basic requirements of an offence being classifiable as inciting hatred: first, the words must be threatening, abusive or insulting; and, secondly, the words or behaviour are intended to, or do, incite hatred. Implementation of Clause 2 of the Religious Offences Bill (formerly Clause 39 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill) are in keeping with the equality-based arguments for amendments to the law. Islam also forbids religious abuse. I speak as a British Muslim when I say that we are pleased that the matter of religion has been taken out of the anti-terrorism Bill, which, undoubtedly, would otherwise have been viewed negatively.

Although there have been some apprehensions that, rather than being protected, British Muslims will be further persecuted under the new Bill, I feel that it is beneficial to us and other religious groups to be covered by the law against unfair discrimination. There have also been concerns that freedom of speech will be stifled, but the Religious Offences Bill refers to acts of hatred, not comedy and religious debate. This Bill will now protect all groups, unlike the previous blasphemy laws. It is also in keeping with respecting unity, diversity and equality.

In conclusion, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who has suggested that the Bill could go to a Select Committee for further examination. I strongly support him in that aim. I wholly support the introduction of the Bill, and look forward to discussing the new religious discrimination Bill.

9.29 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I do not wish the Bill to reach the statute book and nor do I accept that there is any reason why it should do so. This can obviously become an emotive subject and I shall not follow the line of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, because I am anxious to remove that element from the whole discussion.

The Bill pre-empts extensive consultation between the three monotheist bodies and other religious bodies in England, Wales and Scotland on the issues covered in Clauses 1 and 2. That pre-emption would render wholly inappropriate the setting up of the suggested Select Committee, if the Bill were to be given a Second Reading—which, by convention, I suppose that it has to be given. It is essential that, in ecclesiastical matters, some sort of consensus should be sought and, if possible, achieved by compromise before the Bill could ever be referred to a Select Committee of this House, as is understood to be the intention—subject, of course, to the approval of this House.

I speak only for myself, but I do so in the light of a mass of unsolicited correspondence, to which I referred during the passage of the recent Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Bill. One ought not to tinker with the law in the area of religion without having at least sought consensus, which I had understood to be the sense of this House on the Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Bill. I have said that, but for convention, I would oppose Second Reading.

On Clause 1, if there were a consensus between the religious bodies, after consultation, to accept the recommendations of the Law Commission, so be it, but it is suggested that Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 should be retained as redrafted as constituting a religiously aggravated circumstance to be added to the offences by amendment to Section 29 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

As for Clause 2, I am not concerned with importing emergency legislation from the Province as a precedent for legislation in this country or in Scotland or Wales. Clause 2 is a replica of the provision in the Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Bill that your Lordships rejected by a massive majority on two occasions. It is not a new provision, which we understood that the Government might wish to introduce in the light of extensive consultation. Your Lordships may well think that Clause 2 should not stand part of the Bill in any event. Clauses 1 and 2 raise totally disparate, distinct and separate issues, which are in no way related. Even if Clause 1 were to commend itself, that could never justify the retention of Clause 2—or vice versa. There is a rumour of a trade-off on both clauses, so that a semblance of unity might be achieved and the aspiration of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, could be fulfilled and the whole matter could be sent to a Select Committee. If that rumour is true, I hope that your Lordships will have none of it.

In all events, if Clause 2 were not to stand part, the Title and Clause 3 would require amendment and it would be wholly unacceptable to foreclose on a Committee stage on the Floor of this House. I stand by that to the end of my speech.

I do not understand why the opinion of the House, expressed only six weeks ago by the composite wisdom of your Lordships on two substantial Divisions should not be respected by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and why the issue should be so soon revisited.

If the essence of the problem is that identified in the exchange between the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, whom I see in his place, on 15th October when the Statement was made—that religious hatred is used as a cover for racial hatred—so be it. Since then, however, Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 has made provision for religiously aggravated offences which includes relevant safeguards, renders Clause 2 otiose and disposes of the argument in favour of the new offence of incitement to religious hatred. Under Section 40 of the Act, the maximum sentence for such offences is increased to seven years.

As for the argument in favour of the new offence in Clause 2, on 15th November, the Home Affairs Committee found no evidence to support it. It found problems of compatibility with the ECHR concerning freedom of thought and speech on religious matters; the objections of all three monotheistic religions and other religious bodies; and the "cross breed" objections of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that racial hatred is not a matter of opinion protected by free speech. Today, the noble Earl has confirmed that that objection does not extend to Sections 39 and 40 which provide for an increased sentence on conviction for the relevant offences—public order, assaults, criminal damage, harassment and so forth.

If the law as it stands were to be enforced—an issue raised on 21st November by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford—it is a wholly satisfactory regime. Clause 2 is not only pre-emptive of due consultation but wholly inapposite. Indeed, it would work much unintended mischief.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask whether he agrees that there is religious discrimination against Muslims? The British National Party has been publishing leaflets and inciting hatred against the Muslim community but there is no legislation to protect that community. How does the noble Lord suggest the authorities should deal with those matters?

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, although I have an understanding and sympathy for what he says, I decline to enter into that type of discussion tonight. I am of the opinion that if the present law were enforced as amended by Sections 39 and 40 of the 2001 Act—the noble Lord shakes his head, but I could shake my head at him; I am only answering his question to the best of my ability—it would be a wholly appropriate and effective safeguard. That is my opinion and my answer in amity.

9.38 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords. I should like to take the Bill in three bites. The first is what it proposes: revival of the Government's proposals for dealing with religious hatred. The second is what it seeks to abolish: the offence of blasphemy. The third is a variety of provisions relating to disorder in churches and churchyards.

First of all, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said, it is quite clear that the issue of incitement to religious hatred will not go away. I believe that the Government were right to seek to legislate in this area, but whether they were right to try to bring in such provisions under the banner of a Bill against terrorism is another matter.

Much of the opposition to this proposal expressed fear for the curtailment of free speech. But what is at issue is not the right of free speech; no religion ought to have anything to fear from fair scrutiny and honest debate. No, what is at issue is the abuse of free speech to incite fear, prejudice, contempt and even violence.

The shameful history of European anti-Semitism makes the point. Jews have been abused and vilified not only for their alleged racial characteristics but also for their real or alleged religious practices, all the way from circumcision and dietary rules to stories of baby eating.

As we have already heard, Jews, like Sikhs, are now protected by anti-racist legislation because in their cases the boundaries of race and religion are held to coincide. Not so Christians, Muslims or Buddhists. For the sake of clarity, as I think I may have been misunderstood, I shall repeat some of the things I said on, I believe, 15th October. The boundaries of Christianity and Islam do not coincide with ethnicity. These are religious communities which in principle transcend all ethnic divisions. Nevertheless—and this is the point in the situation in which we find ourselves—in particular historical and social circumstances these religions have become associated in the popular mind with particular ethnic groups.

Islam is not an inherently Asian religion. In my city of Birmingham there are plenty of white Muslims, just as there are plenty of Asian Christians. Nevertheless, Islam is generally perceived in this country as an Asian religion. Consequently, attacks on Islam are used as a cover for incitement to hatred and even violence against people of Asian origin. Islamophobia is an issue and it is not dealt with by current anti-racist legislation.

Leaflets circulated by the British National Party in the West Midlands illustrate the point when they present themselves as defenders—the only defenders, they say—of Christianity and urge parents to withdraw their children from religious education on the grounds that it is now a vehicle for the Islamification of so-called Christian Britain. Of course, for "Christian" read "white" and for "Islamic" read -Asian".

Of course, if there are to be criminal sanctions against religious hatred, there must be measures to prevent their abuse, such as keeping authorisation for prosecution in the hands of the Attorney-General. The proper exercise of free speech must be protected, but not its abuse, which brings us to blasphemy. The present state of the law, which offers protection to one religion only, is plainly indefensible. The only argument lies between those who believe that all faiths should be given protection against hatred and abuse and those who believe that all faiths are fair targets for anything.

The view of the bishops of the Church of England—and it is widely shared—is that if there is satisfactory and plainly effective legislation against religious hatred, the law against blasphemy can go. But before leaving blasphemy, it is worth noticing that what we are now talking about is the protection of the rights of groups and communities and not only of individuals. That is important in view of some of the arguments that were advanced when your Lordships discussed the human rights legislation a few years ago.

Finally, this Bill seeks to abolish various offences relating to disturbances in churches and churchyards. Here, in place of outright abolition, the Church would want to follow the Law Commission in extending protection from Christianity to all faiths by penalising riotous, violent or indecent behaviour in any place of religious worship.

I speak from pastoral experience when I say that such protection is sometimes needed. I find myself wondering on this point whether the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has consulted the police. I believe that they would agree with my point. This part of the Bill, whatever my comments on the rest of it. certainly needs more thought.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the substance of this Bill, tabled, as it now is, independent of the matters that were raised in the anti-terrorism, crime and security legislation. I also welcome this opportunity to deliver my maiden speech.

Those several sources of advice on the protocol of maiden speeches whom I consulted stressed two points. The first is that a maiden speech should be delicately short. The second is that the speech should not be controversial. I have at moments given way to the thought that perhaps I have chosen the wrong Bill if I am to meet the second of those criteria; that is, of being non-controversial. Two means. however, have occurred to me of avoiding unnecessary controversy in such sensitive—properly sensitive—matters.

The first might find me accused of mauvaise foibad faith—for it appeals to the example of Shakespeare's Mark Antony, who came, as he reiterated, to bury Caesar, not to praise him". That would not only imply an element of legalistic literalism but it would set a dangerous precedent. I shall therefore resist the temptation to refer to those who either propose or oppose the Bill as. "all, all honourable men". However, I am sure, as Mark Antony was not, that they are all, all honourable men—and, indeed, women.

This short literary excursion may seem a self-indulgence, but it is not. It takes me to my first point. The difficulty that the clever use of words by a polemicist, an orator, a preacher and, heaven help us, these days even perhaps a religious spin doctor might pose for those who would seek clear legislation in such essentially disputable areas as religious belief a.nd religious offence is a real difficulty and must be tackled in any adequate legislation.

There is an alternative basis, of course, for speaking non-controversially in such sensitive contexts. That is perhaps to be found in a previous world that I inhabited. I was, in fact, a professor of the philosophy of religion at King's College, London, and now, fitfully—as other duties allow—at the University of Edinburgh. That is to say, I speak as one who seeks to understand, through scholarly intersections of philosophy and religious belief, what these issues are and how they affect the tenor and course of our society.

Yet even there immediately one courts the risk of controversy. It was David Hume, who suffered in his own life the offences of religious discrimination and hatred—indeed, denied, as he was, a professorship of philosophy because of his alleged atheism and actual scepticism—who reminded philosophers of the change of terrain when one moves from philosophy to religion. He wrote: Whereas the mistakes in philosophy are merely ridiculous, those in religion are dangerous". So, too, one might add, are any potential mistakes in legislation about religion.

However, a background in the philosophy of religion, as well as an early but growing respect for the conventions of this House, reassure me that there are merits in speaking on this topic not just as a CrossBencher defined in party political terms but as a CrossBencher in fact in matters of religious belief and practice.

I restrict myself to two specific points. In the first place, I welcome particularly Clause 1. Subsections (1)(a), (2)(a) and (2)(b) of the Bill are particularly welcome. The classification of blasphemy as a crime belonged to another age.

In the second, and final, place, I further ask your Lordships to reflect a little more widely upon the context from which Clause 2 of the Bill comes before us. The context is one of ignorance that promotes fear and suspicion of the religious beliefs and practices of others. I am not wholly persuaded of the truth of the adage that: To understand all is to forgive all—, but I have no doubt that in matters of religious belief and religious sensitivities, knowledge and understanding are a precondition of tolerance and toleration.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, stressed the appalling level of religious discrimination and harassment in our society. This is clearly a matter that requires serious attention. I suggest that one way in which to give it serious attention is to consider what I believe is an obvious point: the question of what means we provide for our people to understand these issues. What is the pattern and form of religious education which we operate in our schools and more widely in our society?

My suggestion is that we do not yet have an adequate form of religious education—adequate, that is, for the character of the diversity of the society in which we live. If that is the case, surely one way in which to tackle such appalling discrimination—it is there; I have no doubt about that—is to think once more about the groundwork and fundamental principles of the kind of education which we provide in our schools.

Therefore, if, in fact, we proceed further with the discussion of these matters—I hope that we do—I hope that in due course that will include the opportunity here and elsewhere for a reassessment of the place and nature of religious education both generally in our society and specifically in our schools. If one considers that such a reassessment might be too controversial, and if one considers that such a search for knowledge and understanding might be too difficult or even too expensive, then the only alternative, as one of my fellow vice-chancellors from the USA once put it, is to "try ignorance". Surely not. It is undoubtedly the presence of that very ignorance which has led to the need properly to debate such a Bill this evening.

9.52 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, it is genuinely a great pleasure and a privilege for me to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, on his maiden speech. He could have chosen any of a variety of topics on which to speak. He could have chosen education, care for the elderly, on which he wrote a masterly report, philosophy or religion. I am glad to say that he chose this Bill and managed to make a very balanced and non-controversial speech on the subject.

The noble Lord brings to us great distinction as an educationist, philosopher and social thinker. Indeed, he has the incredible distinction of having once been my boss—it is not given to many people to be that—since when he has fallen on hard times. But I welcome him here on behalf of us all and I hope that we shall hear much more of him in the years to come.

It will come as no surprise that I do not like the Bill. There is a famous story of a couple who went to see the film "Ben-Hur". One asked, "What did you think of it?", to which the other replied, "I liked Ben; I hated Hur". I like Clause 1 but hate Clause 2. That is my summary judgment of the Bill.

However, seriously speaking, I believe that there are a number of problems with the Bill. I have a deep and abiding respect for the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who introduced it. He has made an unmatched contribution in defence of human rights, and I entirely understand why he is doing what he is doing. But I shall, to the last breath in my body, oppose any legislation of this kind because I believe that it is misconceived and, if passed, will do untold harm to the people whom it seeks to protect.

I start by arguing my case. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham made my case for me. He said, and I agree, that when the British National Party writes its pamphlets against Muslims. that has nothing to do with religion. It is not indulging in some obscure theological debate about the Koran, the prophet or the Sharia. It is a racist attack on Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian Muslims. It has not attacked black Muslims, although it could have done. It has not attacked white Muslims. It is attacking south-Asian Muslims because they are south Asians. If the BNP saw a south Asian walking along the streets of Bradford, Burnley, or wherever, it may not even care that he is not a Muslim but a Hindu. The issue is not one of religion, but religion has been raised because of all the Islamophobia taking place.

I am an atheist, but I was born a Hindu, so I have to ply my goods. I believe that in the debates on religion there is too narrow an emphasis on the three monotheistic religions. We need to be careful or we shall upset a lot of people in the world—one billion at least—who are not children of Abraham. As I have said before, the three great monotheistic religions of the Middle East have a history of almost 2,000 years of hating each other. That is what neighbours do; they hate each other. I would even say that religious hatred has been preached inside churches, temples and mosques. In the past 2,000 years religious hatred has been preached inside religious temples. That happens today in India among Hindus. Hatred of Muslims is being preached in Hindu temples. It is an absolute recipe for religious hatred to belong to another religion.

I do not take seriously the professions of religion that they all preach tolerance and believe in peace. I shall not go down that road, or I shall never stop. The problem is not one of religious hatred. Both the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the right reverend Prelate gave the example of Northern Ireland. How very nice. When I see children being spat upon as they go to primary school and being fire-bombed, do I say, "That cannot possibly happen in Northern Ireland because it has legislation against religious hatred"? What do we think is going on there? It has nothing to do with religion.

People identify certain groups by religion, but there is communal hatred. In India and Pakistan there used to be what was called "communalism". This is communalism; that is, hating communities. People are labelled by religion. Even though they look exactly like you, behave like you, eat like you and drink like you, you hate them because you label them as belonging to another community.

I have said before that if we were really serious about this question, we should re-examine the racial hatred legislation and see whether we cannot extend the definition of race to cover these kinds of acts. There is a question of religious discrimination with which we should deal, but that is not an issue in this legislation. Therefore, I shall not deal with it tonight. I shall make one comment, which I have made before. My race is not my choice; my religion is my choice. Therefore, one cannot draw a parallel between race and religion.

People say that Jews and Sikhs have an identity between race and religion. I do not believe that that is entirely true. Carl Marx's father converted to Christianity. However, everyone still denounced Marx as a Jew. If one wants to hate the Jews, one does not care what religion they are; one still hates them.

Some prominent Christians become Jews when they marry. For example, Miss Taylor became a Jew when she married her second husband, Mike Todd. She has never been hated as a Jew. Why? There is a real distinction here. If I was a Sikh and I shaved off my beard and cut my hair no one would know what religion I was. So there are funny things going on here. I think that people hate Jews because they hate Jews as a race. Theological issues which used to be part of Christians hatred of Jews are now, thank heaven, almost gone.

We are dealing here with communal or racial hatred. It is hatred of—let us call them—national groups which live in certain areas. We are making a great mistake for entirely honourable reasons by putting a religious tag on this issue. Religion has caused enough trouble for the last 2000 years; let it not cause any more.

10.1 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I share a great deall of sympathy for what the noble Lord. Lord Desai, has just said although I suspect that my logic would lead me back to the Bill in order to tackle the problems with which he sought to deal. I cannot, in the limited time that I have spent looking at the matter, see any other practical way of tackling the kind of problems that we all agree exist. Although I entirely agree with the noble Lord that these are not problems that, by and large, at the moment spring from religion in this country, they are expressed in that way. Perhaps tackling the expression is the practical and sensible way forward.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has brought the Bill back to us. Like my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, I am pleased to be tackling this matter again. I was delighted that we did not have to tackle it in the rush to pass the Anti-terrorism. Crime and Security Bill because a great deal of care and thought is needed to get the provision right. There are activities which should be caught under this Bill, and there are activities that it might threaten to catch which should definitely not be caught.

It is difficult to define a religion. We do not have any definition of religion in this Bill or, so far as I am aware, in our law. Once one starts with the great religions, certainly with Christianity and Islam, one is not dealing with a community but with a whole scatter of communities which have spent some parts of their history burning each other (and doubtless doing other dreadful things to each other) because of minor differences in their interpretation of the same gospels. One is not dealing with one friendly community, but with a whole collection of little communities; one of which is a community that we have just been to war with—the Taliban. It seems to me that one can reasonably get to the point of hating the Taliban—and it is a group which would define itself in relation to religion. Therefore, if it was a circumstance that was happening within this country one could find oneself, without a great deal of care, caught by legislation such as this.

We could also find mothers being caught under the provisions whose children had been kidnapped by quasi-Christian sects. That happens in this country and it causes a great deal of pain. There are a number of what one might call quasi-religions which are extremely rich and which are fierce in prosecuting their enemies. One must be careful not to hand a loaded weapon to them.

We must also be careful about the extension of the concept of religion to other things. There is much more observance of fox hunting and keen enjoyment of it and participation in it among those who go in for it than there is of Christianity among many people who would call themselves Christian. Communism might qualify as a religion, if it did not deny the fact so earnestly. It is difficult to know where the boundaries of religion will be drawn.

As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, religion and race are different. Religion is not always a choice; one is born into a community, as well as a race, and religion can be part of that. I was born a Christian, although I am no longer a Christian. Christianity has doubtless made its mark on me, and I identify with much of the belief system with which I grew up. I would be identified as a Christian by someone who wanted to put me into a religious slot.

It is reasonable, in some circumstances, to hate things religious, although I cannot think of a circumstance in which it would be reasonable to hate someone because of their race. If Catholics were still burning us, and we were still burning Catholics, it would be quite reasonable for us to hate the other side. It does not strike me that, under those circumstances, we should seek to stop someone hating someone who is doing something hateful. Religion, sadly, often results in people—or groups within a religion—doing hateful things.

I should like to see the Bill go into Committee. I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway that that would be a bad way of dealing with it. I do not want to see a stitch-up between the major religions, with them deciding what the law should be and presenting us with a fait accompli. I want us, the non-religious, who are equally concerned about the effect of religion on our society, to participate.

Referring the Bill to a Committee of the House would mean that it would run into the sands, because it would not get time to pass by the end of the Session. However, the Bill would be thoroughly debated. It would probably come back to the House for a Report stage and then die. That would mean that it was open to the community at large to decide whether we could bring back an amended Bill and run it through its proper course in the new Session. That would be a sensible way of doing things and could be a constructive way of raising the issues in a calm, collected and open atmosphere and of having them properly debated by all sides without the debate being captured by any particular section of society.

In changing the Bill, we must go for common sense in constructing the defences that would be available to a citizen. We must rely on the common sense of judges and produce something that is reasonably flexible. I should like to see a defence against the charge of religious hatred on the grounds that the action taken by the accused was reasonable in all the circumstances. That might be worth considering. We might have to define the breadth of that, to make it clear that free speech was defended and that someone would be able to challenge the tenets or practice of a religion as long as that is what they were doing and what they had intended to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out that criticism of a religion can tend to stir up hatred. That is what animal rights activists do. They stir up hatred against Islam and Judaism by pointing to the method that they use for killing animals. I should not wish to see such people—much though I disagree with them—prevented from making that criticism. They are not doing it to stir up hatred against individuals in that group; they are trying to deal with a particular religious practice that they find extremely difficult because of their views about how we should treat animals. I do not want that to be caught by the Bill.

I want there to be time for the Bill to be tested against all the potential things that ought to be able to be done, to make sure that it does not catch them. I want to make sure that the evils that we are trying to catch really would be caught by the Bill and, in particular—to cover the points made by my noble friend—would not already be better caught by something else. We should focus this Bill on things which need to be caught and we should catch them in the right way.

I wish the Bill good fortune, as long as—and I do mean "as long as"—it does not become law during this Session, but we have a great deal of time in which to debate it.

10.10 p.m.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, I shall be very brief. We are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for sticking to his purpose with this the second of his Bills on the subject. I echo his tribute to the excellent Library note.

In warmly supporting the Bill, I shall not propound the arguments I have prepared because most of them have been made already with great eloquence, and it is rather late for the others. They have been made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, my noble friend Lord Ahmed and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. But, following the subtle and erudite maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, I shall add two authorities for my opinion.

One is the third century Indian king, Ashoka, who said that the beliefs of other people all deserve reverence; and the other is John Stuart Mill, who included within religious freedom the tolerance of scepticism and atheism, as does the European Convention on Human Rights.

As for blasphemy, I read last week in the History of Blasphemy just published, by Alain Cabantous, that the Talmud was publicly burned as blasphemous and that the publisher of Tom Paine's The Age of Reason was punished as a blasphemer. That is not an edifying history, and one better curtailed.

Finally, I strongly endorse the proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for the reasons he gave and because of the various concerns expressed by noble Lords, and because of the innovatory nature of Clause 2, with its implied acknowledgement of a post-secular age, which those of us who care for the enlightenment may regret, but I think that that is the case.

Not least, a Select Committee could reflect on the opinion of the United Nations Human Rights Committee that, the UK should extend its own criminal legislation to cover offences motivated by religious hatred". The UK is a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and has bound itself to uphold both the convention's freedoms and its protections. But we need now to pay more detailed attention to the implementation of our international obligations in respect of hatred on the grounds of religion or belief. On that basis, I warmly commend the Bill.

10.13 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I should like to say how much I enjoyed the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. The right reverend Prelate was a long-standing member of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, NACRO, and has a record on equality and human rights second to none. That was clearly demonstrated in his speech tonight. I thank him for that.

May I also say how delighted I was to listen to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood. His speech was a matter of considerable substance because I believe that he has highlighted education as one of the elements that we need to consider as a part of this equation.

I support the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Avebury because its purpose is clear. It seeks to abolish the common law offence of blasphemy and certain other offences, and to create an offence of religious hatred. I have a great deal of sympathy with the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, but this is not a recent phenomenon. When I came to this country in 1956 and settled in Brighton, the local National Front and British National Party formed the Sussex Racial Preservation Society in case I contaminated the local culture.

The recent trend of the National Front and British National Party is not to behave on the basis of racial element but to exploit Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims. I worked for the Commission for Racial Equality for more than 28 years. Whenever racial discrimination or religious hatred against Muslims came before the CRE, it was powerless to do anything.

If the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and I were to walk down the street together, I do not believe that any National Front member would be able to distinguish which one of us was a Hindu or a Muslim. Both of us would be one to him. To that extent, the racial argument is valid but it goes beyond that—and it is time that we were a step ahead.

The record in respect of incitement to racial hatred has been poor. The situation in relation to religious hatred is even worse—as I found during my work at the CRE. One must feel concern about the security of all communities in Britain. The Minister might be tempted to ask why we did not support a similar measure during the passage of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. That measure was not the right place for such a provision. The events of 11 th September were not relevant. A distinction had to be made between anti-terrorism measures that could be justified as necessary in an emergency situation and those that have wider implications and should be given greater consideration by Parliament.

Unlike the measures that the Government had in mind, my noble friend Lord Avebury goes one step further. The Bill is designed to abolish the common law offence of blasphemy that was not covered by the anti-terrorism legislation. The view is widely held that the current law is unfair and protects only members of the Christian faith. The Government certainly face a dilemma. There are people who believe that the common law offence of blasphemy should be abolished. Equally, there are people who advocate a more stringent approach. It does not matter which view one supports. It is clear that the offence as it stands gives better support to one religion while others are left to fend for themselves. Any law that discriminates in its application is a bad law and goes against the Government's stance on equality legislation.

My noble friend's solution is worthy of consideration. The Bill will amend Part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986 to include racial or religious hatred. In addition, it will introduce a common, universal definition that treats all religions equally. Section 17 will be amended so that religious hatred means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious beliefgggg". Thus it will be possible to tackle incitement resulting from words or behaviour; the display, publishing or distribution of written material; public performances or plays; distributing, showing or playing a recording; broadcasting or the possession of racially inflammatory material.

I note the concern expressed by the Bishop of London's working group on offences against religion and public worship as early as 1987. At that time, the right reverend Prelate said: It is our strong opinion that to withdraw the protection of the law altogether from grossly abusive attacks, made with the purpose of outraging religious feelings, would be widely taken to express the view that religious belief was no longer a matter deserving the protection of the law". Section 17A of the Public Order Act 1986 as proposed by my noble friend is clearly designed to ensure that all religious beliefs are adequately protected. I trust that the Bishops' Bench will welcome this provision.

The working party of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London expressed a clear view about other religions. It stated: We feel that the requirements of natural justice entail that this protection should not be limited to Christians. Other members of the British Society who sincerely hold religious beliefs are members of the same society as Christians and so should enjoy similar protection under the state law. A new offence which seeks to protect adherents of all religions, would he a cohesive and supportive element in the plural society of the country today'". That is the sentiment described by the right reverend Prelate. It is right, therefore, that we should ensure that there is a process of equality in such legislation.

The creation of an offence of religious hatred is very important. There have been a number of research reports—identified by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed—published by the Home Office, which have examined religious discrimination. Much emphasis has been placed on this issue because "racially aggravated" offences are defined by race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins. The definition does not include religious groups, although some religious groups may be covered by analogy with court decisions made under the Race Relations Act 1976.

The House of Lords held that Sikhs constitute an ethnic group, whereas Muslims do not. I do not think that this is the place to rehearse the arguments about ethnicity, but suffice to say that racial hatred can be dealt with under the present race relations legislation on incitement to racial hatred, but there is no equivalent protection afforded to matters of religious hatred.

Even in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 there is an ambiguity about this matter. There may be an offence which may appear to be motivated by religious hostility but which may also contain a racist element. The test of what amounts to "racially aggravated" requires that the racial hostility is "wholly or partly" a motivating factor. Even if there is a religious hostility, provided that part of the hostility is racist and provided that part of the motivation was based on racial motivation or hostility, then, and only then, is the offence covered under the Act. In other words, if a racial element cannot be established, the case for religious hostility fails.

What is now required is a detailed consideration about the appropriateness of an offence of religious hatred.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. With respect, I do not think the noble Lord is quite right. Under Sections 39 and 40, the religious motivation alone would carry. Therefore there is in existence, under existing law, thanks to the anti-terrorism Act, a mechanism to protect what he wishes to protect.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, my understanding of what is provided for is that if there is an element of religious hostility in matters of racial hostility, that can be taken by the courts to be an aggravating factor in determining sentence. That is what I understand.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, it is either racial or religious. Therefore one or the other will serve to protect.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, at this late hour I do not wish to argue about the legal knowledge of the noble Lord. Certainly, if I am wrong, I shall correct my record in Hansard at the earliest opportunity. There is a need for independent evidence to be collected. There is a further need to examine appropriate legal remedies in matters of religious discrimination. We need to allay the fears of those who are concerned about freedom of speech. Will the Minister consider asking the Select Committee to consider these issues—a suggestion was made by the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Ahmed, and a number of other speakers—so that, in due course, we can prepare a framework of legislation which may go a long way towards establishing equality and removing the sense of insecurity that is prevalent among many minorities in this country. That is the right way ahead. I hope that the Minister will give due consideration to this request.

10.25 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, the House will undoubtedly be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for introducing the Bill. I am bound to say that I believe he is being a trifle hasty and opportunistic in doing so. However, that is consistent with the noble Lord's record in this field and we should not be surprised. I could have wished for a longer interval between the passing of the anti-terrorism Bill at the end of November last year and any reconsideration of this matter. I believe that considerable thought is necessary before we make progress.

It is a particular pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood. I have never met a professor of religious philosophy before, but I cannot think of a more appropriate occasion for someone who includes that in his curriculum vitae to make his mark in a maiden speech. I look forward to hearing many more contributions from the noble Lord.

We need to be clear about one point arising out of remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. The Bill does not make religious hatred an offence. If the Bill progresses, it will deal with various matters which might create, cause or incite religious hatred. Religious hatred itself is not an offence.

My second point is possibly a more difficult one. I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and for the work that he does for and on behalf of his community. I have every sympathy in respect of the problems created for the people in that community by the present national and international situation. Equally, I respect the responsible approach of all moderate people within the Muslim community in this country. However, we must consider this matter from a wider perspective than the problems currently faced by one single community. I hope that the noble Lord will not mind my introducing that slightly wider perspective.

This is not a straightforward issue. My noble friend Lord Lucas raised the question of what is a religion, or indeed a religious community. I begin by dissecting Christianity. There is an obvious division into Catholics and Anglicans. Perhaps the right reverend Prelate will forgive me for making a distinction between Anglicans and the Church of England. Those in north America would not consider themselves as having anything to do with the Church of England, although they are of the same Church in many ways.

We have the Reform Church, Baptists, the Congregational Church, and there are sects. In my part of the world there is a group called The Peculiar People, who are very strange indeed. They can cause quite a lot of friction in the community. It becomes quite difficult when we come to Mormons and even more difficult when we talk about the Church of Scientology, which may or may not be a church or religion at all. These matters are important because definitions can be used in other contexts or subventions from government. We need to be extremely careful. All these matters can cause difficulty.

It is interesting to note that there were discussions between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved power in Scotland prior to the passage of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act. That Act was clearly intended to apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. The only reservation that the Scots had about the Bill was that on no account should the religious clauses apply in Scotland. It has a well-known reputation for holding strong and divisive religious views. The Scots clearly thought that the matter was far too contentious for we Sassenachs to be allowed to pass an opinion. I issue another note of caution.

I have reached the conclusion that the Bill, although well-intentioned, is premature. I should prefer that it were not here now, but that is not because I am opposed to the principle. It may be that the Bill in the wisdom of the House will be sent to a Select Committee and, if it finally comes back to us, that may be an appropriate way forward. My view is that progress of this Bill in this form at this time would not he wise. With the greatest deference to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, whom I greatly respect, I do not think that the matter has had sufficient thought. I am not certain that we have yet arrived at a sufficient degree of agreement for us to be confident that the Bill will succeed in the purpose for which it is intended.

The issues are wider than the simple and straightforward one that has been caused by the current national and international situation vis-a-vis aspects of the Muslim community. The situation is tragic but we must be extremely careful about what we do because of the wider implications and the possibility of the measure having an adverse affect on other aspects of life.

10.35 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, rarely can there have been such a fascinating debate on a Bill, brought forward in this way by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. From the Government's perspective, it is worth echoing our gratitude and thanks to the noble Lord for bringing forward the Bill as quickly as he has in the time since we discussed the anti-terrorism legislation before Christmas. I do not share the view expounded by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that this is opportunistic, except to say that it is opportune. It is right for us to continue to have such important debates. It would be fair to reflect that this is one of the issues left over from the early debates on antiterrorism to which we are right to return at this stage.

Before I turn to the content of what was both an interesting and fascinating debate, I shoulcl like to record my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, on his contribution to our debate this evening. I guess that only a professor of religious philosophy, or of the philosophy of religion, could declare himself a "religious Cross-Bencher". That is a fine expression, if I may say so. In his short and sweet contribution, the noble Lord was right to remind us that it is easy to make mistakes in legislation, and that we should perhaps seek to reflect more widely on the debate when moving forward and trying to consider such issues. I say that in the full knowledge that it is not too long ago that we sought to put these very clauses into an important piece of legislation.

The issue that the noble Lord touched upon with great perception was that relating to religious education in our schools. I am now fast approaching my mid-point in the century of life and think back to the time when I attended school and was taught religious instruction. I can now reflect that it is not that way any more; indeed, great progress has been made. My two children are now at secondary school. What I appreciate most when I view their homework is the fact that Mr Hickman, their teacher in these matters, provides contexts and presents them with a rational way of looking at the world's religions. That is the way to tackle the very core of the problem, which is, essentially, ignorance. We need to foster and further understanding of these matters. However, at the same time, I argue that we also need to counter discrimination, bias, hatred and incitement to hatred, and best consider how we can do so.

My response in general to the Bill will he brief. I suppose I should pray for forgiveness in that respect. However, my response will be brief because, as noble Lords know, my noble friend Lord Rooker and my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General spent some time not so long ago facing opposition from all sides of the House on a clause in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill—a clause that now appears word for word in Clause 2 of the Bill before us.

Your Lordships will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to rehearse those arguments at this late hour. In any event, I am not sure that I could surpass the comprehensive and compelling explanation that my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General gave on both 10th and 13th December last on the effect of the clause and the operation of the existing law on the incitement of racial hatred.

Despite the fact that the incitement to religious hatred clause was dropped from the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, we should not forget that that legislation importantly amended Part III of the Public Order Act in that it expanded racial hatred to groups outside Great Britain, and also increased the maximum penalty for the offence of inciting racial hatred from two to seven years' imprisonment.

I should point out that the Government remain convinced that those who deliberately seek to incite hatred against religious groups, to stir up hatred, and to set community against community, should commit a criminal offence. We remain convinced that the law should not create anomalies where some religious groups are protected because they fall under the courts' interpretation of racial groups, while others are not so protected. That point was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and other speakers during the course of this evening's debate.

We remain convinced that an offence of incitement to religious hatred would not be abused, that there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that freedom of speech is not unduly restricted and that criticism, debate or even jokes would not be outlawed or suppressed. That was our view in December and, your Lordships will not be surprised to learn, it is still our view.

On reflection, it was not clear exactly why your Lordships' House resisted the clause in the Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Bill. Was it simply, as some suggested, because the clause was inappropriate for that Bill? Was it because the clause was technically flawed or was it because it was opposed in principle? The Hansard reports of our debates show a mish-mash of reasons, rationale and opposition. Perhaps this Bill will clarify where the House now stands. I certainly welcome the real debate that has been advanced this evening on the merits of the clause.

We put the incitement offence into the antiterrorism Bill because we recognised the weakness in law that could be exploited during tension that arose as a direct result of the events of 11th September. We did not support the amendment tabled to that Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker—which was identical to the provision in this Bill—to repeal the offence of blasphemy because we did not think that the repeal of blasphemy was an issue that had arisen as a direct result of the events of 11th September.

In December we had the rather odd scenario of some noble Lords opposite opposing the incitement clause because it was inappropriate for the anti-terrorism Bill but urging the Government in the same Bill to repeal blasphemy. That was a rich irony.

We have made it clear that we believed that it would be appropriate to have a constructive debate on the issue. That debate began with the anti-terrorism Bill and with my right honourable friend the Home Secretary's expression of his personal belief that the law on blasphemy should be repealed. I want it recorded that we very much welcome the opportunity that this Bill provides to continue that debate and we strongly welcome the suggestion that a Select Committee would be ideally placed to look at the issues in a considered and responsible way. I am happy to acknowledge that that view has been widely reflected in your Lordships' House this evening.

My noble friend Lord Rooker made it clear on 13th December—and he made no bones about it—that the Government have a full legislative timetable for this Session. We are committed to the proposals outlined in the Queen's Speech and we are not prepared to sacrifice that timetable. However, the Government will not be the opposition to this Bill and we shall watch its progress with interest.

One or two other matters were raised during the debate that perhaps need to be cleared up. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General would issue guidance for the Bill. My noble and learned friend offered to issue guidance on how he would approach the exercise of his powers to consent to prosecutions if the Bill were to pass into law. If it would be useful, I am sure that my noble and learned friend would reconsider that position in issuing guidance, a draft of which he produced to aid your Lordships during the passage of the anti-terrorism Bill.

It is right to put on record our agreement with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham that there is a great need to look at the law relating to offences in churchyards. We accept that that is important. That is why we support the examination of the legislation in general terms by a Select Committee. That will undoubtedly be one of the issues that the Select Committee will want to turn its attention to.

I should like to correct one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. He is wrong to say that religiously aggravated offences were not amended earlier. I think that it is right to say that they were amended by the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and that racially or religiously aggravated offences are now covered. It is an important point to remember.

I am heartened by the general support in your Lordships' House for the Bill's provisions. I am also heartened by what I sense are messages of support from all quarters within your Lordships' House for referring the matter to a Select Committee. Clearly that would be right. It would provide for mature reflection all the issues that have been very valuably raised both in this debate and in our debates in December. All your Lordships—from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, to the noble Lord, Lord Desai—seem to agree at least on that point. Perhaps I should end my remarks there.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on introducing the Bill. Perhaps I should also commiserate with him given the amount of grief that it has caused others in the past. We certainly wish him well. Although the Bill has familiar clauses, he will undoubtedly discover that there is some equally familiar opposition to them.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he accept that, when I was dealing with the matter relating to the religious hatred provision, I was talking about the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and not the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001? He also mentioned the timetable. Does he think that progress will be made on the legislation in this Session?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I would not want to pre-empt discussions through the usual channels on how the Select Committee might proceed. The noble Lord could perhaps discuss that issue with the noble Lord, Lord Roper—who is next to him on the Bench and could raise it with his colleagues. It is an important matter and requires some urgent thought; we thought that back in December and it continues to be our view. However, as many of your Lordships have said, it requires careful consideration. Of course I accept the noble Lord's explanation on the crime and disorder legislation.

10.47 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I shall not trespass on the patience of the House by reviewing the whole of this debate, in which so many distinguished noble Lords have spoken. The contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, was not the least of the speeches. It was something of a triumph to manage to be non-controversial on such a controversial subject. I think that his scholarly, wise and straightforward speech does not put him in the category of religious spin doctor—which was a nice coinage that we may be able to use on some future occasion.

I am most grateful to the Minister for his remarks on the Government's support, and particularly for his endorsement of the proposal that the Bill should be committed to a Select Committee. Several noble Lords on all sides of the House have supported that proposal. Even those who did not like the Bill's content said that there should be much further discussion of this issue. In particular, although the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is not against the Bill's principle, he thinks that the proposals are far-reaching and demand great examination in case there are unanticipated side effects. As I understand it, the Select Committee would be the vehicle for doing just that.

In reply to the question asked by my noble friend, Lord Dholakia, on timing, I understand—and hope that I am at liberty to say this—that the Liaison Committee meets at the end of February. If it sees that your Lordships sense that the matter should be referred to a Select Committee, it will consider whether the means are available to set up a committee. As I understand it, two committees are reaching the end of their deliberations. There would therefore be a strong possibility that such a Select Committee could begin its work after Easter and report back to your Lordships before the end of this Session.

So that takes care of the anxieties that some noble Lords expressed that they did not wish the Bill to be passed into law in this Session. It would have no possibility of doing that, but it would perhaps form the basis of a much more carefully thought out Bill which would be brought back to your Lordships during the Session following this one.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at ten minutes before eleven o'clock.