The Sketch: Lord save us from religious Thought Police

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The Independent Online

Intent is no defence in racial hate speak; it's no defence now in the Government's religious hate crime Bill. It's all in the eye of the offended.

If you say something that is thought to be "likely" to stir up hatred you may be arrested, according to Lord Hunt, "by the Religious Thought Police".

As one of the peers pointed out in Religious and Racial Hatred's third reading in the Lords yesterday, the Bill "creates an incentive to be aggrieved". It's even worse than that, according to Lord Lester: normally a prosecutor must establish an intention to bring about a crime. But in religious hate crime, "the defence must prove the absence of that intent" and failure renders the accused liable to seven years in prison.

Seven years! Reel backwards with me, reaching for your brains, and ask what in the name of our sweet, suffering saviour is happening to this country.

Lords Hunt and Lester made an irresistible attack on the Bill. Mind you, the Sketch isn't going to disagree with the statement: "The right to cause offence is fundamental." But even the more morally exalted among us will agree that "the best remedy for evil ideas is more speech, not less". The Government says it is trying to protect people not beliefs; the opposition say this is impossible. You can't distinguish the two. No one, hitherto, provided a rebuttal of MP Chris Bryant's Christian proposition to love the sinner but hate the sin. Unless it was the other way round, my theology's not what it was.

But listening to the way Lord Hunt put it - I can see how inextricably intertwined a person's beliefs and character might be. The statement: "Islam is a crap religion, but some of my best friends are Muslims" is supposed to be legitimate. But it is now clear that a Muslim who wished to take offence would do so claiming his Islamic beliefs were part of his "indivisible core" (©Tony Blair).

And again, if I say "Islam is a crap religion" at sufficient length, I might cause Muslims to say they hate me - and I'd get prosecuted for that as well. And what about those mullahs who say apostates (not to say adulterers) should be stoned to death? Isn't that a hate crime? If the Government is trying to suck up to Muslims as Lord Lester said, there must be better ways of doing it than locking up their preachers.

Lord Lester achieved a stunning victory yesterday with support from all sides of the House. The heroes of the resistance deserving particular mention seem to be Lords Plant, Clinton-Davis, Wedderburn and Peston. Once again, the Upper House saves the day, if only for the minute.