John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Religious Hatred

After the howls of delight at the Commons voting to keep Lords' amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, we must pause for thought. Is this new law (as I tap away, being written up on vellum for Her Maj. to sign) the equivalent of 28 days - that is to say, better than the original government proposals but still questionable?

The short answer from a legal point of view is "not really". 28 days as a period of pre-charge detention was questionable because there had been, in my view, insufficient analysis of several vastly more reasonable alternatives (such as the use of intercept evidence and in camera courts) and, as a result, the moral case did not begin to be made.

However, the Lords' amendments to this Bill have effectively neutered it in legal terms. Explicitly safeguarding freedom of speech, the modified Bill also only prohibits the uttering of words intended to incite hatred, and then only if the words are "threatening" - and not merely "abusive and insulting", as the government's Bill was drafted. In short, the addition of the concept of intent, and the caveat that a prosecution could only be successful if future violent action is implied, render the Bill merely a sort of glorified amendment to existing legislation against incitement.

In essence, the law coming from this Bill does not prohibit incitement to religious hatred - it really outlaws deliberate incitement to violence on the basis of religion. However, considering incitement to violence on the basis of anything was an existing crime, it is difficult to see how this law serves any useful purpose.

On that basis, leaving the legal wrangling, it is clearly not a good thing in itself. Indeed, as with Section 28 in 1988 banning the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities, it may not be the content of the Bill that does the damage. No council was ever prosecuted for breaking Section 28 but, according to the BBC website (link below), it was "invoked more than 30 times to prevent projects going ahead" until 2000. In short, what people think the Bill does is more important than the detailed drafting of the legislation. Will it go through the minds of artists, local museum and theatre directors and television commissioners? The premature end of the play Behzti in Birmingham last year following protests by some members of the Sikh community offers a chilling snapshot of what could be.

This law was intended by its original authors to put thought crime on the statute book. Thanks to the Lords, I can continue to say "abusive and insulting" things about religions, and even be "reckless" about it - both of which would have been grounds for prosecution in the unmodified Bill. The fact that I have no urgent wish to do so does not stop me feeling relieved that PC Plod has no power to stop repeats of Not the Nine O'Clock News or offer Iran a diplomatic arm in these tense times by finally locking up Salman Rushdie.

Nevertheless, it is the government's original intention - wanting to limit freedom of speech in order to shore up Muslim votes haemorraging after the invasion of Iraq - that sticks in the troat and that may yet do lasting damage.


On Section 28:


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