25 November 2004
On Wednesday 24 November
Parliament conducted the first reading of the new Serious Organised
Crime and Police Bill. This is a major Bill addressing some much-publicised
areas relating to law and order.
Buried deep in the Bill in Schedule 10 is a proposal to introduce
concept of religious hatred. This has been of considerable concern
to many groups since the Government first proposed it. There was
a proposal to include such provision in the 2001 Terrorism Bill
but this part was dropped when it became clear it would be divisive.
The provision has now been introduced, again within a large Bill
and there is a strong feeling that the Government has done this
deliberately to get it passed as part of a larger package.
The proposals involve changing the 1986 Public Order Act so that
references to racial hatred are changed to racial and religious
Many of the concerns in 2001 focussed on the vagueness of proposals
and that it appeared to focus on the offence statements may cause.
The new proposals seem to focus more on the concept of stirring
However, there is still much concern about whether such legislation
is needed and what is the motivating factor.
It is clear that many Muslims in the feel threatened by actual
potential backlash against Islamic terrorists. The 2001 Bill and
parts of the new Bill may well be seen as discriminatory against
Muslims. This is because there is clearly a threat from groups
of terrorists who have a Muslim background. Therefore many feel
that the Government is offering the proposals on religious hatred
as a sop to the Muslim community.
By the same token there has been a growing sense among people
at large, and amongst journalists and others making statements
in the public domain, that there is now great reluctance and even
fear to be seen to criticise or even publicise the actions and
statements of what are seen as extremist Islamic groups. The fear
is that this new law will be a major impediment to free speech.
Furthermore, many religious groups fear that the legislation may
end up being used to prevent people criticising the views of others.
There are always going to be some people who will be stirred up
by genuine and honest criticism no matter how soberly expressed.
It is expected that the second reading of the Bill will be on
7 December and then it will go to the Committee stage. The interplay
of the Commons and Lords particularly in the run up to a General
Synod is going to be a major factor in what will happen to the
25 Nov 2004