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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 11:34 GMT
Q&A: Religious hatred law
The government has suffered a double defeat over its plans to ban people from stirring up religious hatred - which means a "watered down" version of the new offence becoming law.

What is this new law?

The new offence is designed to stop hatred being whipped up against people because of their religion - not just their race. It would ban people from intentionally using threatening words or behaviour to stir up hatred against somebody because of what they believe.

Don't current hate laws cover people's religion?

Sikhs and Jews already have full protection from incitement because the courts regard them as distinct races. But Christians, Muslims and others have not been given the same protection because they do not constitute a single ethnic block. Northern Ireland has its own laws to deal with sectarian discrimination between Protestants and Catholics.

Isn't it already illegal to discriminate on religious grounds?

There are already Europe-wide regulations banning religious discrimination in the workplace, while the Human Rights Act incorporated the concept of religious freedom into British law. Judges can also impose higher sentences if religion is a motive for a crime - such as an arson attack on a place of worship.

And isn't incitement already a crime?

There is an offence of incitement which says that it is unlawful to try and persuade someone to commit a criminal act. Critics of the new offence say this older law could be used easily against bigots trying to whip up hatred or violence against believers.

What if someone hates a religion because they think it's a threat?

This was at the heart of the criticisms of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Those opposed to the law argue that it would be impossible to say X or Y religion damages British society because, in doing so, they may be accused of inciting hatred.

What is the government's defence?

Ministers say the test for what counts as incitement is high enough to ensure that robust and free debate about beliefs can continue as before. And they reject claims from campaigners, including comedian Rowan Atkinson, that the original plans would have stopped people telling religious jokes.

How did the Commons defeats change things?

The final version of the laws contains specific freedom of speech safeguards aimed at ensuring people can only be found guilty if they intend to stir up hatred. And they would ban only "threatening" words and behaviour, not things which were merely critical, abusive or insulting.

What were the specific amendments?

The first defeat, by 288 votes to 278, was aimed at ensuring the new laws would not affect the current racial hatred laws. The second vote, which the government lost by 283 votes to 282, said the law should only criminalise "threatening" behaviour, not things which were just "abusive and insulting". It also means people can only be prosecuted if they intend to stir up hatred - not if they are merely "reckless".

How was Tony Blair defeated?

With a majority more than double the 26 rebels the government theoretically should not have lost. But it seems the whips just underestimated the scale of the rebellion, so agreed to let at least 15 Scottish Labour MPs apparently be away from Westminster campaigning in a by-election. Ministers suffered two defeats - one of them by only one vote: that was the one the prime minister himself missed.

How much will the new law be used?

That remains to be seen. Any prosecution would have to be approved by the attorney general, the government's chief law officer. Ministers say the small number of prosecutions for incitement to racial hatred (fewer than 100 in three years) demonstrate the law can be applied sensibly.

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