A foolish and unnecessary Bill

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The Independent Online

Given the strength, and weight, of the opposition to the proposed ban on incitement to religious hatred when it was mooted last autumn, it might have been hoped that the Government would have quietly dropped it come the new session and the intervention of a general election. Comics ridiculed it as outlawing jokes about religion; writers castigated it as an assault on free speech; civil libertarians rejected it as a move to censorship and the restriction of open debate.

Given the strength, and weight, of the opposition to the proposed ban on incitement to religious hatred when it was mooted last autumn, it might have been hoped that the Government would have quietly dropped it come the new session and the intervention of a general election. Comics ridiculed it as outlawing jokes about religion; writers castigated it as an assault on free speech; civil libertarians rejected it as a move to censorship and the restriction of open debate.

That the Government has persisted with the legislation in the form of the Racial and Religious Bill published yesterday owes far more to politics than to justice. The legislation was first introduced as a sop to the Muslim vote before the election and presented firmly in the Labour Party manifesto to help gain their support. But political gesture is a bad imperative for legislation, particularly in so contentious and so nebulous an area as offence to religious sensibilities.

The legislation, declares the Government, is not intended to persecute the comic sketch or the imaginative novel. Satanic Verses would remain untouched, as would Rowan Atkinson. Indeed, argued the Home Office minister. Paul Goggins, yesterday, the burden of proof would be set so high that "we don't expect there to be many prosecutions".

But if the Home Office doesn't expect many prosecutions, then what on earth is it doing introducing new legislation at all? Ministers say that it is partly to close a loophole in the law, under which Sikhs and Jews are protected by the Public Order Act outlawing incitement to racial, but not religious, hatred.

But if this really is the case - and the Government has had to go to the most contorted lengths to say that religious protection includes atheists, satanists and everyone else, for fear of being accused of discrimination - why not simply refine the Public Order Act?

The Government may not expect to use the law, but once it is in place it will be all too easy for religious groups to demand its application whenever they feel offended. Religion is explosive territory at the best of times. Give extremists a weapon at hand and they will reach for it - and it could well be used as much against mullahs as in their defence. Far from calming fears of prejudice, this law could actually exacerbate fear, as fundamentalists of all sorts demand police action against their critics and then plead prejudice if action is not taken.

It is a good principle of law that legislation not born of real and apparent need is best kept off the statute book. If MPs have any freedom of spirit, and the House of Lords still has some spirit in it, they should reject this unnecessary and dangerous Bill outright.

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