As you may have already heard, the Government’s Religious Hatred Bill suffered two defeats this week in the Commons.
After it passed from the Commons – despite Liberal Democrats and others voting against it – my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the Lords introduced an amendment to the Bill guaranteeing freedom of speech. Without getting too technical, when the Bill returned this week to the Commons – the Government wanted to negate the Lords’ amendments and re-introduce two dangerous elements. One was that you would be caught by the proposed legislation if you used ‘insulting or abusive’ language against a person of some faith or none. This was defeated and you will only be caught if the language is actually ‘threatening’.
The other element was that you will now have to ‘intend’ to incite religious hatred – i.e. inciting religious hatred is the purpose of what you say and the reason for you saying it. Basically, if you criticise someone for their religion – which is a legitimate function of free speech in a democracy – you will now no longer be caught by this legislation.
Had we not defeated the Government, we would have seen legislation not only chill free speech – but we would also have seen the unintended consequences of the Bill deliver the opposite of its avowed intention – more religious hatred and not less.
This was democracy in action – where the opposition parties across both Houses, and joined by the Labour rebels in the Commons, worked together to defeat a seriously flawed Bill.
The strength and depth of opposition registering in my post bag shows just how unpopular this Bill was. Such strong protest from the public definitely helped convince Labour rebels that the Bill could not be passed as it was.