Sunday, June 12, 2005

No Offence

Before the recent election, I emailed my MP expressing reservations about the proposals to introduce a crime of incitement to religious hatred that were then part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, and - as chance would have it - received a reply just as the benighted proposal was relaunched as a Bill in its own right.

Here's the letter.

Thank you for taking the trouble to write to me about proposals to introduce new laws banning the incitement of religious hatred. First of all, I really must apologise that it has taken so long for me to reply. Your email arrived just as the General Election was commencing, and as MPs were forced to empty their offices once it was called. I had to move a lot of paperwork, and unfortunately the printout of your email has only just surfaced.

I wanted you to know that I appreciate your comments, but it is important to stress that this law is needed to fill a hole in current legislation. At the moment there is no law against incitement against religions, even though there is a law against attacking Christianity. Similarly, there is currently a law against incitement to racial hatred, and I am sure that you do not want to get rid of this law. A new law would simply correct these anomalies, and would provide reassurance for people of other religions.

There is in my mind a clear distinction between the human right to observe a religion or make fair comment about religious extremism, and inciting hatred against those who follow it. Ministers earlier this year met campaigners about this, including Rowan Atkinson who was concerned thatit would prevent comedians or writers (such as Salman Rushdie) from making legitimate observations about religions. I understand the meeting went well, and helped reassure people about the intentions behind the legislation. If more meetings are needed, I hope they take place.

I think that most of us have a clear idea as to what is incitement to religious hatred, and most of us consider it to be wrong. If we were called to be jurors in such a trial. I am sure we would take a sensible approach. I acknowledge your reservations, but in my view there is a need for this law, and I believe that it will be workable.

I hope that this explains my position. Thank you again for sending me your views. I have noted them, and will bear them in mind in the future.
It will surely be no surprise for me to confirm that I disagree with pretty much every sentence of this, but for now let us confine ourselves to the "Atkinson" meeting described in the third paragraph. The meeting she refers to was held on 25 January this year, when a delegation from English PEN � Salman Rushdie, Geoffey Robertson QC and Lisa Appignanesi - along with Rowan Atkinson - met with Home Office Minister Fiona MacTaggart.

You can see from PEN's press release that the comment that saying the "meeting went well, and helped reassure people" is fairly wide of the mark. In fact it specifically states, "the PEN delegation pointed out that they were in no way reassured by the Minister�s words".

Although my MP comments that, "if more meetings are needed, I hope they take place", she appears to have been somewhat overtaken by events as the incitement to religious hatred bill had its first reading last Thursday and the second is scheduled for June 21.

It seems clear to me that the Government is trying to rush the Bill through in order to avoid proper public debate.

You can reach PEN's No Offence campaign on the web by clicking here.

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