[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 June, 2005, 06:43 GMT 07:43 UK
Religious hate law revolt fails
Regents Park mosque
Muslim groups have led calls for new laws
The government has survived a backbench revolt over its plans for a new law to ban the incitement to religious hatred.

An amendment from a coalition of Tory and Lib Dem MPs to block the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill failed by 303 votes to 246, giving a majority of 57.

Critics, including comic actor Rowan Atkinson, say the measure will limit freedom of expression and stop them from telling religious jokes.

But Home Secretary Charles Clarke says the bill protects "people not faiths".

The bill received a second reading by 303 votes to 247 - a government majority of 56 - and will now go on to its committee stage.

Jokes won't stop

In the Commons, Mr Clarke told critics he would look constructively at amendments in committee.

When I was beaten to a pulp by a gang of skinheads on my first day at high school, it wasn't because of my religion
Shalid Malik
Labour MP

"This bill is about hatred and incitement to hatred," he said.

"What this bill isn't about is stopping anybody telling jokes about religion, stopping anybody ridiculing religions or engaging in robust debate about religion.

"It won't stop people from proselytizing and it will not curb artistic freedom - neither the purpose nor the effect of this bill is to limit freedom of expression."

The bill would create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred and would apply to comments made in public or in the media, as well as through written material.

The plans - which have failed to make it through Parliament twice before - cover words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up religious hatred. Jews and Sikhs are already covered by race hate laws.

'Too dangerous'

Shadow home secretary David Davis said the bill was "too general, too wide, too vague, too dangerous" and it was questionable that it would protect the minorities it sought to help.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said the government was "playing fast and loose" with freedom of religion and freedom of expression and warned that "once lost will never be easily regained".

In a democracy there is no right not to be offended
Shami Chakrabarti

However, Labour's Shalid Malik, Parliament's first British-born Muslim MP, launched an impassioned plea that the bill was needed.

He used his maiden Commons speech and his own experiences to argue that he had spent much of his time fighting hatred, sectarianism and bigotry throughout his life.

"When I was beaten to a pulp by a gang of skinheads on my first day at high school, it wasn't because of my religion," he said.

"They didn't know and they didn't care if I was a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim or for that matter if my family was Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi.

"In those days we were all seen as Pakis and we were all fair game. But the world has changed. Parliament must be receptive and reflect this new reality."

Definition

Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews, who was joined by Lib Dem and Conservative colleagues, said people's race was what they were, their religion was what they believed.

"Hatred of what you think is much harder to define than hatred of what you are," he argued.

Civil rights group Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti said: "In a democracy there is no right not to be offended.

Rowan Atkinson
Mr Atkinson appeared at a Westminster news conference

"Religion relates to a body of ideas and people have the right to debate and denigrate other people's ideas."

She said where people used religion as a proxy for expressing racism the existing race laws could be amended to encapsulate that.

Ministers say they do not expect many prosecutions under the new laws, but argue it is important for Parliament to send out a clear message against "hatred, racism and extremism".

Religious hatred is defined in the bill as "hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief" - showing it will also cover atheists.

Race hatred laws have resulted in 76 people being prosecuted in nearly 20 years, with 44 convictions.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Why the government still has work to do on the Bill



SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Religious hatred law
09 Jun 05 |  UK
Religious jokes 'won't be crime'
07 Dec 04 |  UK Politics
Religious hatred proposal revived
17 May 05 |  UK Politics
Religious hatred law gets backing
07 Feb 05 |  UK Politics


RELATED BBC LINKS:

RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific