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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2006, 10:49 GMT
Head-to-head: Religious hate bill
Worshippers at Regents Park mosque
Ministers want believers to have the same protection as racial groups
Demonstrators are expected outside Parliament as MPs vote on plans to ban incitement to religious hatred.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill has undergone substantial changes in the Lords but the government hopes to push through a compromise amendment.

Home Office Minister Paul Goggins, and comedian Rowan Atkinson, who has been a prominent critic of the bill, debate the issue.

PAUL GOGGINS, HOME OFFICE MINISTER

Throughout all the debates on this, I have made it clear, my colleagues, other ministers in the Home Office, have made it clear that nothing in the bill would stop people from telling jokes, from putting on plays, from entering into the most robust discussion and debate about religion and religious belief.

But, nonetheless, in addition to those assurances, we are putting on the face of the bill a very clear commitment that providing people are not setting out to incite hatred, then they can have robust discussion, criticism, ridicule - even expressed in abusive and insulting terms.

We have put that guarantee on the face of the bill.

We have always maintained, throughout all the debates that have gone on over the past five years, that this is a small gap in the law - not a huge gap.

It is where people set out with the intention of stirring up hatred at people because of their religious beliefs - that has no place in a modern civilised society
Home Office Minister, Paul Goggins

The police made it clear in evidence they gave following the disturbances in northern towns that there was a tendency from some extremist groups to use this gap in the law to whip up hatred about people.

We should not forget there is already protection in the law for Jews and Sikhs under the race hate legislation - other religious groups do not have that protection.

That is a genuine gap in the law, which we are seeking to remove through this legislation so all religious groups are covered.

We want to make sure there is no doubt whatsoever in law that people who whip up hatred in that way can be caught, can be prosecuted, can be dealt with.

Stirring up

It is not debate, it is not strong language used in religious discourse, or even ridicule or theatre.

It is where people set out with the intention of stirring up hatred at people because of their religious beliefs - that has no place in a modern civilised society.

We always have accepted there are fine balances to be drawn here - but religious belief is an important part of identity, and the expression of that religious belief is important to many people.

So, for all the difficulty in getting the balance right, we think it is right to press ahead with this legislation.

ROWAN ATKINSON, COMEDIAN

You cannot draft a piece of legislation with the intention of just picking off a few nasty people, because the very nature of law is that it applies to us all and there is absolutely no doubt this bill is seeking to provide immunity from criticism and ridicule to religious beliefs.

I am a great believer that you should be allowed to say whatever you like about religious beliefs and practices and if the religious believers are caught in the crossfire they just have to accept that if the exposure of hateful or ridiculous religious practices is done then the religion's followers are just going to have to accept responsibility for those things.

The government says the aim of the legislation is only to protect believers not beliefs - but I do not understand how you can attack one or criticise or ridicule one without implicating the other.

Rowan Atkinson
All that clause is doing is saying is 'you have not committed an offence, unless of course you have committed the offence, in which case I am afraid you have committed an offence'
Comedian Rowan Atkinson

There is a so-called 'free speech clause', which the government is trumpeting like mad as a big new idea - but to me, having read it, it is virtually meaningless.

There was a very good free speech clause in there, which came from the Lords - but now, sadly, it has been neutered with a conditional clause in the middle of it, which starts with the word 'unless'.

So you are not guilty of the offence, you can criticise, ridicule and abuse or insult religion or religious belief or religious practice, unless you intend thereby to stir up religious hatred or were reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up.

So effectively all that clause is doing is saying is 'you have not committed an offence, unless of course you have committed the offence, in which case I am afraid you have committed an offence'.

It is a circular bit of nonsense.

When I first started reading it, I thought 'oh great, we have won, we have achieved something' - but by the time you get to the bottom of the page, it has all been removed in conditional clauses.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See Rowan Atkinson explain his opposition to the bill



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