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November 24, 2004
Equality Bill delayed over religious harassment
The Equality Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech, is not expected to be published until next year due to an attempt to exclude harassment from the provision to outlaw religious discrimination, which is being included in the legislation, The Muslim News has learnt.
Home Office Minister, Fiona Mactaggart, has admitted the dispute with Muslims on the inclusion has caused the delay but insisted that the reason was British Government “did not to fall into the same trap as in Australia where preaching has been captured.” But she told The Muslim News that there was “a robust discussion going on to get it right, particularly issues around harassment.”
The Minister also confirmed that outlawing of incitement to religious hatred legislation was being published under Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill on Wednesday, even though it was not specifically mentioned in the Queen’s Speech or in the subsequent Home Office press release. She insisted the incitement legislation will be as comprehensive as the incitement to racial hatred and gave assurance that it will be applied equally. Just as is the case with Public Order Act incitement to racial hatred, to get persecution, one “will need the consent of the Attorney General…so that there is no spurious prosecution,” Mactaggart said.
During an exclusive interview with The Muslim News, she argued that the reason for the incitement legislation is to “prevent people inciting hatred of people of different faith on the basis of their faith. You can criticise faith, its tenants.” The Minister illustrated this with an example of the comments made by the BNP Leader, Nick Grifffin, on the BBC TV, saying he “was able to get away with outrageous statements about Muslims because there is no protection of Muslims in our legislation.”
Mactaggart said the legislation will also help change people’s attitude, as “we learnt from the incitement to racial hatred legislation.” It will actually help to “change how people think,” she said and referred to Griffin’s remarks, when he said ‘I couldn’t say this about Black people but I can say it about Muslims.’ As to its effect on freedom of speech, she said, “It will affect freedom of speech to the degree that we will stop people promoting evil and hatred targeted against people through speech but it won’t interfere with robust theological debate.”
The Home Office Minister elaborated that one has to prove that there is someone who has heard the incitement to be stirred by it. But for this new legislation you have to intend to incite hatred, you don’t necessarily have to prove that someone in your audience has received the incitement. “What is important about this law is the reflection of the Government’s recognition of how fundamental faith is to identity,” she maintained.
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