First experience of Committee Stage proceedings at Parliament – this is part of the legislative passage through the Commons of a Bill. Today it is the first session on the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill. Alistair Carmichael – my LibDem colleague – is leading for us in committee and I am his number two. The idea is that I learn the ropes so that when I lead the Violent Crime Reduction Bill through Committee stage in the Autumn I will know what I am doing.
The first thing that strikes me is that I need to be a lawyer. The whole process imitates court proceeding where each line of the proposed Bill is examined – with amendments laid down on virtually every point. Each amendment is then ‘moved’ (introduced verbally) by the person (and therefore party) who has laid down that particular amendment. All sides then argue the case on each point – point by point – and from what I could see – at extreme length.
So far so good!
The Bill is (in my view) a well-meaning attempt by the Government to try and stop people inciting people to hate other people because of their religious beliefs – that is hatred of the believer not the belief.
My experience of religion (as an agnostic) is that quite a lot of religion, although not necessarily practised as preached, is about hating others and condemning those with different beliefs. And therein lies the difficulties in this Bill. Quite what is it that should be protected – and what is it that people shouldn’t be able to do?
Labour say they want to make things equal in terms of the fact that Jews and Sikhs are covered by the existing legislation. But that’s because Jews (and Sikhs) are different to all other religions in that the religion is inseparable from the race. The counter argument is that the law covers all races and for them it covers them if the incitement is racial – but not religious.
Lib Dems have put what is called the ‘Lester Amendment’ which helps the Bill give protection to what we believe the Bill is actually aimed at – Muslims who post 9/11 have suffered abuse and hatred in its wake. The proposition is that they are being attacked as ‘Muslims’ but the hatred is really racially motivated rather than religiously motivated. Therefore the amendment seeks to cover those who use religion as a ‘proxy’ for racial hatred. But it keeps freedom of speech – including the ability to disagree with and criticise people’s religious beliefs.
Ok – I am not going to try and describe the ins and outs of each of the four sessions – but you can see the way this is going.