My Lords, some years ago, in 1990, as the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Cheltenham, I had a rather interesting experience. On my first day as a candidate, an elderly lady approached me and demanded to know what exotic part of the world I was from. I replied that I was from the sunny paradise of Birmingham, just off the M6 motorway by the gas works. She was not very impressed by that answer. She made it clear that she could never vote for a black person to be her Member of Parliament. I was saddened by that observation, but carried on with my work as a candidate. About a year later, that same lady approached me and apologised. She became one of my greatest supporters. Did she change her mind through an Act of Parliament? The answer is no. She became more educated about me as a person and my background. It was a change of heart and mind. That cannot be done through an Act of Parliament.
One of my favourite Bible phrases is, “wisdom is better than strength“.
Sadly, although this Bill attempts to apply the strong arm of the law, it lacks the fundamental wisdom to make it effective. Of course, I agree, as I am sure we all do, with the laudable aims of the Bill, but it is like someone trying to clap with one hand; one can see the effort but not hear any result. I believe that the Bill is wrong in principle, would be barely workable in practice and is actually not needed. It has also raised expectations among minority communities, who are likely to be very disappointed if they seek its protection. One thing we can guarantee in life is that the unexpected always happens. I am concerned about the unintended consequences of the Bill, which might increase racial and religious tensions.
It is still not clear to me what will be the crucial test of an offence under this Bill. Will it be that the words uttered were intended to stir up racial hatred or that, as a result of words being uttered, an act of religious hatred followed on the part of a third party? The Bill will not be restricted to the intended stirring up of religious hatred, but will cover an act that is likely to do so. So there is an intent and “an act likely to do so”.
That will be good for lawyers because of the muddle, but it will not be good for community relations. The Bill is silent on resolving or clarifying the issue of intent. Sometimes silence is golden, but in this case silence is confusing.
A number of Christian and other groups are concerned that hatred is not defined in the Bill, but it is left to the courts to define it. The courts may well use the dictionary definition of hatred, such as,
“an extremely strong feeling of dislike”.
This means that statements from the Bible or Koran could cross the threshold of being likely to stir up religious hatred against those who have an extremely strong feeling of dislike of what they say. We need to build bridges between communities—not walls. I believe that the best way to target someone who hates others because of what they believe is through the force of argument, rather than through the law. Criminal law should be used to punish people who do injury to the person, to property or to the liberty of an individual and should not be used for those who simply offend one’s beliefs or feelings.
I maintain that it is important to distinguish between race and religion. In 1986, the Conservative Government rightly sought to criminalise people who attempted to stir up hatred on the ground of race, because race is not something that someone chooses. I learnt many things in Cheltenham. I learnt that I was virtually the only black person in the whole town, which was an interesting situation for me. However, it soon became apparent to me, and to others, that it was not the colour of my skin that was the most important thing, but the content of my character and what I was to achieve.
An attack on race is an attack on the individual but, in my view, religious belief is very different. Although one can be born into a religion, it is still something one can choose to embrace or to reject. I happen to follow the Christian faith, but we know that there are many different religions with competing claims and lifestyles. It is entirely right to question and to challenge the principles of such religions in the course of debate.
It is not surprising that Justice, the independent human rights and law reform group, fears that the Bill will increase intolerance, not decrease it. When other countries have introduced this kind of draconian law, support has increased for far-right parties. That happened with Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. Canada, Denmark and Holland also experienced that consequence.
The Bill is vague; it is too wide and too ill-defined. It is great for defence lawyers, but I am sure that the Bill is not designed to line the pockets of defence lawyers. It is also not needed. That is the real sadness of this whole situation. Apart from the Public Order Act 1986, the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the concept of religious freedom into British law. Incitement is already a recognised criminal offence. Judges already have the power to increase sentences if they find that religion is an aggravating factor in a crime. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 gives people extra protection against hate crimes, whatever their motivation.
There is no clear definition of the word “religion” in the Bill. Again it will be for the courts to decide what is or is not a religion. By failing to define clearly what a religion is, we are leaving the way open for any organisation, even racist groups, to set themselves up as a religion and to seek protection. While appearing to be an attractive bait, the Bill hides an ugly hook.
The very basis of our democracy is a belief in free speech. I still remember how hurt I felt as a little boy growing up in that paradise called Birmingham when Enoch Powell predicted that race riots would lead to rivers of blood in this country. His comments made me as a child of West Indian parentage feel unwanted as a person. Fortunately, I had a very strong mother who gave me the confidence to rise above such bigotry. But one of the reasons why Powell turned out to be wrong was because freedom of speech provoked vigorous debate and more tolerance as a result. Yes, more laws will create more offenders. But evil ideas should be met with challenge, not the silence of a ban.
“Where there is no root, there is no fruit”. The Bill lacks the fundamental root system to produce what the Government intend. Yet again the Government have over-promised and under-delivered. So many representative groups—in the public gallery and outside this House—are against the Bill for the reasons I have outlined. I know that the Government have heard them; but hearing is not the same as listening.