I have been concerned about this legislation, because it has knee jerk reaction written all over it. We need to be sure that the measures contained within the legislation are liberal, fair and necessary. It's very important that the laws are properly scrutinised for unintended consequence. Religion should not be immune from robust criticism and rational debate and it would be wrong for Parliament to pass a law which, for example, forbade me from saying that I felt any Church leader's stance on or treatment of gay people was wrong.
Two weeks is simply not enough time to properly scrutinise a measure and I think that it would be best left until after the Summer.
Alison addressed this in her speech this afternoon, saying:
....we want to see action on sectarianism. Let us be very clear. Sectarianism has no place in our society. Every single one of us in this chamber agrees that any discrimination based on religion is unacceptable; any threatening behaviour based on religion is wrong; and any acts inciting violence because of religion must not be tolerated. However, I think that the Government are naïve if they believe they can solve a centuries old problem by rushing through new legislation in the next fortnight. Just this weekend, the Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business wrote of how he would like to see more pre-legislative scrutiny in Parliament. Can I say now, that, for once, I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Crawford. The Government are talking about introducing two entirely new offences onto the statute books. Surely it is right that Parliament – that the people of Scotland – are allowed the time to study the proposals, take evidence, and try to ensure that there are no unintended consequences, no collateral infringements on law-abiding citizens’ liberties? Oh, and to ensure that the new law actually does what it is intended to. There are many questions that any Government should have to answer before they can introduce a new law. And any responsible Parliament cannot – or at least, should not – pass a law until all such questions are answered. This proposed new law is no different. And the first – and most fundamental – question asks whether a new law is actually needed? The Cabinet Secretary tried to answer this very question on Newsnight a couple of weeks ago. He said there are gaps in current Breach of the Peace definitions, meaning that “in some instances” there could be difficulties in prosecutions. He might be right, but I say to him – we need to see the evidence.
Are there gaps? Well, just under a month ago, the then Solicitor General Frank Mulholland issued a press release welcoming “the high prosecution rate for crimes of religious prejudice.”
If there are gaps would the new law close them? Well, I await sight of the Bill with interest, but I can guarantee we won’t be able to adequately answer that question in two weeks with no chance to take expert evidence. I would also say this. In England and Wales in the three years to 2010 since the Racial and Religious Hatred Act was enacted, there were 36,763 completed prosecutions of offences that were racially or religiously aggravated. In that time, exactly one person was charged with an offence that had been introduced by the new Act. He was acquitted.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Act is a solid law. It was debated in depth. Expert evidence was taken over many days and weeks. And it has made zero difference to convictions for religiously or racially motivated crimes. I am not saying that a new law will not work. I am asking the Government to take the necessary time to consider all possibilities.
Is it that offensive chanting is already covered by Breach of the Peace, but is simply hard to police because of the number of people involved? Is it that sending bullets through the post is actually already covered through anti-terrorism legislation?
Is it that sending death threats via the internet is already covered by the UK Communications Act? And is it that the sectarian aspect of all these crimes is already dealt with by section 74 of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, and it just needs to be enforced better? These are the questions the Government should be asking before it introduces legislation. And it should be giving Parliament time to find the answers.
I think that the most important thing in dealing with sectarianism is education. I remember a boy from my primary school nearly getting expelled for thumping a boy from the Catholic school down the road "because he was a Catholic." The entire school was summoned to the hall and I swear the head teacher didn't draw breath for 10 minutes as she rightly told us how awful it was to hit someone because of their religion, and how important religious freedom was.The boy concerned was eventually allowed to stay, but he was made to suffer first. The fear of Mrs Mackintosh which was much, much worse than any deity could ever offer. I'm fairly certain he's never done anything like that since.
I think actually modern education is much better at teaching messages of tolerance.
Two weeks is no time to properly scrutinise a piece of legislation. Let's hope that the Parliament realises this and asks the Government to wait until August. As my Granny used to say, if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well.