On 17 October, the House of Lords debated “the challenges posed by religious intolerance and prejudice in the United Kingdom”. Opening the debate for the Government, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth said this:
“I want to make absolutely clear, as I have stated many times before: any abuse directed at someone because of their religion, race, sexual orientation, disability or because they are transgender, is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The Government will do whatever it takes to unite our country around these values and to confront those who would deny our fellow countrymen and women these freedoms. These values are fundamental and anyone who spreads intolerance or hatred shames themselves and places themselves outside of our society.
We are utterly committed to challenging and condemning religious intolerance and persecution in all forms. We stand halfway through the four-year hate crime action plan, and this week we released our refresh of the plan, which is an important opportunity to take stock of progress made. We now have a strong legal framework in place. There are criminal penalties for offences such as incitement to racial, religious or sexual orientation hatred, and racially or religiously aggravated offences such as intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress. We have increased sentences for offences motivated by prejudice, hostility, or prejudice based on a person’s real or perceived race, religion, transgender identity, sexual orientation or disability.
Our work with the cross-government working groups to tackle anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia also continues at pace. The feedback from these groups and from round-tables with members of Sikh communities has been invaluable. We have also continued to collaborate with a range of partners … But the renewal and refreshing of our hate crime action plan is also the right moment to look ahead to the next two years of the plan. If the last two years are anything to go by, we have the potential to achieve a lot. We have achieved much better reporting of hate crime, which is one reason—not the only one—why the incidence of reported hate crime has gone up. We have had success in encouraging the reporting of hate crime, and it is important to know that.
We have asked the Law Commission to review the coverage and approach of current hate crime legislative provision. We must be clear: when someone has perpetrated a hate crime, they will be held accountable for it. Later this year, we will launch a wide-ranging national hate crime public awareness campaign publicly to address hate crime. The refresh commits us to updating the True Vision website to make it easier to use and to ensure it remains the key central platform for all hate crime reporting. We are working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to provide hate crime training for all call handlers in order to ensure an appropriate response from the first contact, and we are creating the challenging hate crime support group—a network of organisations who share resources, skills and best practice.
Sadly, security remains a key concern. The Government have already provided over £2.4 million to increase security provisions for vulnerable places of worship, and in the refresh we have committed further resource for this purpose, to be released next year. That has been welcomed by faith communities up and down the country. It ensures that we are alive to community concerns and able to respond quickly and strongly when incidents occur…
Our message must be that there is no place for hate in our society, and that is equally true of online hate. Last December, with others I hosted a ministerial round-table which brought together social media and technology companies with community stakeholders to consider how hateful narratives are able to spread online and, crucially, what can be done to prevent it. These conversations are ongoing and will be reflected in the forthcoming White Paper on online harms. A number of different aspects of government work will be brought together to make industry take responsibility for harms, including using technology to improve user safety, supporting users to increase their own digital resilience, and outlining what direct action the Government can take to address online harms.
I am mindful that these challenges cross borders. Our work, naturally, has a number of international dimensions, notably the promotion of freedom of religion or belief around the world, including in Commonwealth countries … We actively defend and promote this right on a number of fronts. We lobby Governments for changes in laws and practices that discriminate against individuals on the basis of their religion or belief. We raise individual cases of persecution with relevant authorities in other countries. Multilaterally, we work through the United Nations and the Commonwealth, and there are important lessons to be learned, not least from attacks on Coptic Christians…
[E]ngagement between faith communities is growing. It is one of our strongest defences against intolerance and persecution. I was also privileged to learn about the twinning arrangement between St Philip’s Church in Southwark and the Old Kent Road Mosque on this faith tour, and to see it in action … I once again call on everyone, whether they are a member of a faith community or not, to visit their local synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, church and temple. Let them know that you stand with them in good times and difficult times. When people from different backgrounds have the opportunity to mix socially and get to know one another, it breaks down the walls on which intolerance creeps and grows. Enter with an open mind and an open heart to hear about their traditions, and their hopes, and share yours with them. I encourage our places of worship to keep their doors open, reaching out to your local neighbourhoods with everything that they have to offer.
It is when we feel the most challenged, and the most afraid, that these encounters are at their most valuable. We must all challenge anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, discrimination against Sikhs, against Hindus—against any racial group—wherever it exists. I am proud of my country, a rich and diverse country which confronts religious hatred and bigotry and must always do so. We must all be of that opinion and act accordingly: government, opposition, institutions and individuals. That is the British tradition.”
Responding for the Opposition, Lord Hain (Lab) noted that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain reached the highest level on record last year, including a 34% increase in the number of violent assaults, according to the Community Security Trust. There had been other attacks on Jewish citizens, including on parliamentarians: notably, Luciana Berger MP. In 2017-18, 94,098 hate crime offences were recorded by the police in England and Wales, an increase of 17% on the previous year. Of these, the great bulk—71,251, or 76%—were race hate crimes and 8,336, or 9%, were religious hate crimes. A lot of the extremism was being orchestrated by, or follows the activity of, far-right groups such as the English Defence League:
“The point I wish to stress is this: violent attacks against our Muslim, Jewish and black citizens flow from far-right mobilisations and far-right activism as night follows day. There is an umbilical link between activity by racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic extremists and these sorts of vile attacks. Over the past year or so, the sheer scale of these far-right protests, and the numbers in attendance, is unprecedented …Today’s threat is occurring right across Europe, against a backdrop of despair at neoliberal economic policies which generate massive job insecurity and hopelessness—the habitual fertile breeding ground for racism, fascism and anti-Semitism. From Germany to Greece, from Sweden to Switzerland, from Britain to Belgium, the far right is growing and succeeding, targeting immigrants and religious minorities—familiar scapegoats for collective government economic failure. It must not be allowed to succeed. We need a modern Keynesian alternative to rescue our communities from the austerity and misery of neoliberalism. As we saw so fatally in the 1930s, if that does not occur, persecution of religious and other minorities by racists, fascists, anti-Semites and Nazis will gain increasing traction.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury said that he agreed with much of what Lord Bourne and Lord Hain had said, but he wished to focus more on religious intolerance and prejudice. The rising tide of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia were just two illustrations of the narrowing of those who feel truly at home in the UK today.
“Freedom of belief and freedom of speech are fragile plants that need to be intertwined if they are to flourish. They are both menaced by the chill that comes from constraining their expression, except when freedom of speech is promoting hatred. They easily wither, as I have found in many of our churches across the 165 countries of the Anglican communion. We stand against that, through the Commonwealth and the United Nations, but it is the call of religious leaders to bring them together and stand up for them.
Free speech may well be robust, even humorous, as I discovered recently when a friend of Mr Blobby described me in terms that I cannot use in this House. More politely, I and those on these Benches are often described as those who believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden. That kind of bluntness is good and proper. However, for it to work, there must be a context of what the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, describes in his books as a ‘culture of civility’. Today’s multifaith society means that we live in a context of diverse religious practice. For some, this is welcome and enriching—I put myself among them—while others find it strange and threatening. Whatever your views on that, it is clear that debate in Britain across a range of issues risks losing the gains we have made in the post-war period: gains of civility and respect. If you watch the news, read a newspaper or go on social media—let alone stand up against right-wing, fascist and other extremist activity, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has done throughout his life—you will know that there is a notable absence of genuine dialogue and listening to different views.
I also wonder that, for all our rich Christian heritage in this country, as seen in our laws, practices and many of our values, the breadth of view which we tolerate has become less and less wide. There are many Christians with whom I disagree on the expression of their views in particular areas. There is a long history of Christians disagreeing with each other: Lambeth Palace has a prison for this. It has not been in recent use, although I am from time to time tempted. However, even where I disagree, I want to uphold the right of these people to say things that are neither fashionable nor conventional today. That has certainly been examined in the Supreme Court recently, through the Ashers case. Again, although there might be things in that case that I would question, it is a thoughtful, erudite and profound examination of the intertwining of freedom of belief and freedom of expression.
There is an attitude—I think this is the underlying issue we face—that there are no absolutes, except the statement that there are no absolutes. That is an absolute. We are told that to criticise that statement that there are no absolutes is, in fact, to be an extremist. Certainly, as a Christian who believes in the love of God found in Jesus Christ, I have what some people would call absolute views. But almost every day I meet people who do not share those views. I thank God for those encounters, and for the people themselves, who deepen and enrich my understanding…
We must seek a society that is able to voice disagreement freely and to disagree well; where rich and deeply held beliefs and traditions can exist in mutual challenge and respect. Challenge may be tough, but limit it too much and freedom of expression suffers, and so, in the end, will freedom of belief. This is perhaps one of the most important and urgent challenges of our times. Competing narratives, whether religious or secular, test truth and action. Monopoly views, secular or religious, merely enable people to live in bubbles of mutual incomprehension, and even ignorance. Christian faith and values, or those of other faiths, are not threatened by diversity of faith, but by a failure of freedom of expression, provided it does not include incitement to hatred, however robustly used. It is in confidence in our civil discourse and in our free expression that we gain confidence in our faith, and in that mutual confidence among ourselves, confidence in this nation’s vocation in the world. This allows us to spread what we say and to exhibit what we proclaim, and, in so doing, to offer a framework within which all cultures and faiths can flourish for the common good.”
That was just a taster: the full debate is here. The contributions by Baroness Deech (CB) on anti-Semitism and by Baroness Warsi (Con) on Islamophobia are especially worth reading.