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Last Updated: Monday, 7 February, 2005, 20:33 GMT
Religious hatred law gets backing
Rowan Atkinson
Atkinson: The law is too 'all-encompassing'
A bid to force a rethink of plans to make inciting religious hatred a crime has been seen off by the government.

Comedian Rowan Atkinson supported the attempt to tighten the definition of racial and religious hatred.

But the government defeated the Lib Dem amendment, backed by 25 Labour members, by 291 votes to 191.

Critics fear the Serious and Organised Crime Bill could impact on performers making religious jokes. Ministers say it will not hamper freedom of speech.

Concession

The vote followed a concession by the government which will change the proposed offence of causing "racial or religious hatred" to "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds".

Home Office Minister Hazel Blears said the change would help clarify the situation.

She told MPs: "This is about protecting people, not about the ability to criticise, ridicule, lampoon and have fundamental disagreements about beliefs.

"It is absolutely right in a modern democracy that people should have the ability to engage in that robust and vigorous debate and the position of the government is not that we seek to outlaw that at all."

Final say

Earlier, explaining why he backed Lib Dem MP Evan Harris' amendment, Mr Atkinson said: "I understand what the intentions of the government are here.

A safety valve operated by a politician subject to the political agendas of the day is not to me a good enough safety valve
Rowan Atkinson

"I know that they do not intend to militate against people like me or [author] Salman Rushdie or playwrights.

"But the only safety valve that they have put in the legislation is the fact that the attorney general will have the final say.

"A safety valve operated by a politician subject to the political agendas of the day is not to me a good enough safety valve," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday.

Mr Atkinson described the legislation as being problematic because it was "all-encompassing".

"The incitement of religious hatred doesn't even have to be intended, it is just if it offends any person.

Political move

"It couldn't be more broad."

He said that the measure had only been introduced in order to boost support for Labour in the run-up to a general election.

"This is undoubtedly a politically motivated move on the government's part because they think it will give them some advantage among certain religious groups in the imminent general election," he said.


SEE ALSO:
Atkinson's religious hate worry
07 Dec 04 |  Politics
Anger at no repeal on blasphemy
27 Nov 04 |  Politics
Blasphemy laws set to be repealed
18 Oct 04 |  Politics
Q & A: Blasphemy law
18 Oct 04 |  UK


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