Compromise plans to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred while protecting free speech have been unveiled by ministers.
The government’s original plans for the new offence were heavily defeated in the House of Lords last year. Critics said the proposed legislation was drawn too widely and could outlaw criticisms of beliefs.
Ministers have now published their revised plans, which have been welcomed by some opposition peers.
They have bowed to the critics’ demand that incitement to religious hatred be covered by separate legislation rather than be joined to race hate laws.
Somebody could only be convicted of the new offence if they intended or were reckless about inciting hatred. And there is a new clause in the legislation declaring that a person is not guilty of an offence if they debate issues, insult or ridicule a religion – unless they intend to stir up religious hatred.
The Home Office says the original plans would not have stopped comedians telling religious jokes but the new plans give an “absolute guarantee”.
Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said the amendments would mean it would be an offence to incite hatred against Muslims, Hindus and Christians. It is already an offence to stir up hatred against Sikhs and Jews through race hate laws.
Lib Dem peer Lord Lester, a leading critic of the original plans, said the new amendments had sprung from talks with the government. “They are a great step forward for free speech,” he said.
The deal the government has done with the opposition is mainly unobjectionable. They have conceded Lord Lester’s demand that a separate Part 3A should be added to the Public Order Act which will deal exclusively with religious hatred, but that’s not a problem in itself. Where Lord Lester’s amendment, adopted by the Lords last October, restricted the offence of inciting religious hatred to words and actions that were “threatening”, the compromise deal changes this back to “threatening, abusive or insulting”. And where the Lester amendment required proof of intent, the new version criminalises the incitement of hatred by means of “reckless” behaviour.
So far, not so bad. But here’s the spoonful of tar. The new version includes a passage which states that “a person is not guilty of an offence … of intending to stir up religious hatred if he intends to stir up hatred against a religion, religious belief or religious practice but does not also intend to stir up hatred against a group of persons”. This looks to me like a major loophole in the legislation which will work to the advantage of the far Right.
The BNP’s anti-Muslim hate propaganda is always carefully crafted so it is formally directed against Islam as a religion rather than against Muslims as people. The defence that BNP führer Nick Griffin used at Leeds Crown Court this week was that, while he stood by the speech in which he denounced Islam as a “vicious, wicked faith”, he denied that his views were an attack on the adherents of that faith. “There’s a huge difference”, he stated piously, “between criticising a religion and saying this is an attack on the people who follow it. When I criticise Islam, I criticise that religion and the culture it sets up, certainly not Muslims as a group and most definitely not Asians.” (Guardian, 26 January 2006.)
The argument that you can incite hatred against a particular faith without also inciting hatred against the people who practise it is of course entirely bogus (see for example Osama Saeed’s comments), but the government is proposing to insert a clause into the Bill that gives credibility to Griffin’s position. Someone needs to get onto this quick. The Commons debate is scheduled for next Tuesday.