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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December, 2004, 10:48 GMT
Atkinson's religious hate worry
Rowan Atkinson
The comedian said he was worried about freedom of speech
Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson has launched a comedians' campaign against a government bill to outlaw inciting religious hatred.

The Mr Bean actor says parts of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill are "wholly inappropriate" and could stifle freedom of speech.

The bill has its second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Speaking at Westminster, Mr Atkinson was backed by a group of writers, MPs and the National Secular Society.

The main thrust of the bill creates a new Serious and Organised Crime Agency to tackle drug trafficking, people smuggling and criminal gangs.

But Mr Atkinson and his fellow critics oppose part of the bill which will create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred to protect faith groups, particularly Muslims, from attack.

The freedom to criticise ideas is one of the fundamental freedoms of society
Rowan Atkinson
There are already enough laws to deal with such extremists, they say.

The Home Office has insisted the bill would not interfere with the right to free speech.

The legislation will set up a 'British FBI" - the Serious Organised Crime Agency, bringing together the National Crime Squad, National Criminal Intelligence Service and parts of HM Customs and the Immigration Service.

Mr Atkinson told a meeting at the House of Commons on Monday night there are "quite a few sketches" he has performed which would come into conflict with the proposed law.

'Peculiar law'

He added: "To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom.

"The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.

"A law which attempts to say you can criticise and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed."

Rowan Atkinson
Mr Atkinson branded the new legislation 'peculiar'

He said he had sympathy with the law's backers, particular British Muslims, but added: "I appreciate this measure is an attempt to provide comfort and protection to them.

"But unfortunately it is wholly inappropriate response far more likely to promote tension between communities than tolerance."

Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, who chaired the meeting said the group plans to lobby the government, backbench MPs and peers about the issue.

At the meeting, Professor Jeffrey Jowell QC, from University College London, said the legislation was misguided and unnecessary:

'Free speech continues'

Paul Cook, of the Barnabas Fund, which works for Christian minorities in Islamic and other countries also criticised the bill.

He said there was a danger it would be used by extremists to silence those highlighting the persecution of Christians and other human rights abuses.

A Home Office spokeswoman on Monday defended the bill.

"There is a clear difference between criticism of a religion and the act of inciting hatred against members of a religious group," she said. "The existing offence has not interfered with free speech and we are confident that an offensive incitement to religious hatred will not do so either."

The new Serious and Organised Crime Agency will be formed from the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and parts of the customs.

Its chairman, former MI5 boss Sir Stephen Lander.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme organised crime was costing the UK 40bn - the equivalent of 600 per person or the GDP of New Zealand.

Concerted effort

The agency is due to start work in April 2006 with between 4,500 and 5,000 officers.

Sir Stephen said the British authorities were not "seriously on top" of the problem.

"We are just about keeping pace, which is hardly a comforting thought," he said.

Other parts of the bill would put on a formal basis the practice of giving lighter sentences to offenders who give evidence against accomplices.

And there would be a new law to stop trespassing on specified royal and government property - a response to the "comedy terrorist" who managed to get into Prince William's birthday party at Windsor Castle last year.

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