Speech by Baroness Kennedy, House Of Lords

23rd May 2005, speech to the House of Lords by Baroness Helena Kennedy (from Hansard):

I also have concerns about the plans to introduce a law dealing with incitement to racial hatred. That is because I believe strongly that there is an important role for debate and criticism in a vibrant democracy. To close down that debate will be enormously damaging. The offence is being brought before these Houses as an attempt to appease Muslim communities that feel disenchanted over the political system as of late. I raise the matter because I believe that many people in minority communities, such as the Muslim communities, think that an offence will be created that will protect their beliefs rather than themselves as believers. As a result, they may in the end feel disenchanted with the law, because it will leave them unrequited when it fails to produce their desired outcomes. It will not mean that Salman Rushdie’s book or valid criticisms of aspects of their religion can be prosecuted.

We should recognise that religious conservatives the world over—whether Christian fundamentalists, extreme orthodox Jews or Muslim fundamentalists—often seek to silence others and impose on society not merely tolerance of their beliefs, but acceptance of them. Over the years, I have had a close association with the Southall Black Sisters, a women’s organisation that includes Asian women of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu backgrounds. It has struggled for many years to gain acceptance of its campaigns against violence towards women. It is clear in its opposition to the proposed new law on incitement to religious hatred, because that law would support and encourage the culture of intolerance that already exists in many religions

.

Challenge has to be offered to religions, particularly over human rights issues and particularly as they affect women and homosexuals. The women in such groups have no doubt that this law would be used as a weapon to suppress dissent in their communities, particularly crushing those who are more vulnerable and powerless. I warn the Government that it may have very undesired effects.

I may be concerned about other parts of the legislative programme, but those are my primary concerns. I say to the Government that we are going through a period of change. Our societies are becoming much more diverse. There are undoubtedly new challenges, such as terrorism and international crime. There are great demands on our national purse and, of course, new technologies that provide both solutions and problems, because they could be greatly abused. As we legislate, we should be alert to the unintended consequences that can flow from the choices that we are making now. The role of this House must always be to take the long view—that we are here 
 
23 May 2005 : Column 324
 
to warn the public of the long-term consequences of short-term initiatives. I hope that we continue to carry out that role in the weeks and months to come.

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