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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Racial And Religious Hatred Bill – Best News On Free Speech For Decades

The Government’s attempts to substantially lower the prosecution threshold for incitement to religious hatred were dramatically defeated in the Commons last night. The Government lost two votes in a row, the most crucial (by which time the Prime Minister had left the lobbies) by only one vote. The Home Secretary, clearly shaken, immediately announced he would to send the Bill for Royal Assent exactly as it had left the House of Lords. Peers had previously voted by a 149 majority to insert major freedom of speech safeguards, which will now become law.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society said: “This is the best news on freedom of speech for decades. Given we had to have this Bill because it was a Labour manifesto commitment, having the Lords amendments agreed in full was more than freedom of speech campaigners dared hope for.

“We salute the courage of those 27 Labour backbenchers who defied their whip in the cause of freedom of speech. We thank Dr Evan Harris and Bob Marshall Andrews (both NSS Honorary Associates) and Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve without whom this historic victory would not have been achieved. We similarly acknowledge the valuable work done by the Christian Institute and Evangelical Alliance with whom we have worked closely on this issue.

“It is troubling that the Government remained so intransigent about this Bill to the very last moment, given the history on religious hatred legislation. This was the Government’s third attempt in five years to introduce these measures. The Lords had changed the Bill out of all recognition by a majority of 149. After each defeat they promised to listen, but completely failed to do so. They ignored opposition to their proposals both inside and outside Parliament, despite it being almost unprecedented in its breadth and strength.

“Home Secretary Charles Clarke and Home Office Minister Paul Goggins remain in denial even after last night’s rout. They have told reporters that they blame the trouncing on MPs trying to defeat the Government, rather than these measures.”


Published Wed, 01 Feb 2006