Friday, March 18, 2005

Late news from Wittenberg

It's Friday, so here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Offending offence

Forget the Budget. After their heroics resisting the government's over house arrest, the Lords is the place to be this week.

Besides, the Commons, at least on the Labour benches, is full of sheep. They don't look like sheep (except Kali Mountford), but they behave like them. Ambition, inertia and the power of the whips mean they rarely give legislation proper scrutiny, however outrageously the government behaves.

Which is embarrassing for a committed democrat. These days the Lords is filled with government appointees rather than descendants of royal courtesans and catamites, but it has somehow retained its independence.

On Monday it showed that independence in the debate on proposals to make inciting religious hatred a criminal offence. The government has tacked them on to its serious and organised crime bill. The convention is that the Lords give government bills a second reading without a vote, but the debate made it clear where the balance of opinion lies.

The best speech came from our own Anthony Lester. (Radicals should always refer to peers by their first names, though I've no idea what Lord Bonkers' is.) If the government wanted to extend a hand of friendship to embattled Muslim communities, he said, they would do better to look at poverty, education attainment and the effects of anti-terrorism measures.

Instead, he said, it is introducing legislation that will strengthen the voices of religious intolerance and choke off women's right to dissent in male-dominated religious groups.

And he is right. Religions look monolithic from a distance, but closer up they are a collection of debates. It is sad to see the government aiding the conservative side in those debates.

Worse, this new law appears at a time when free speech is under threat. The play Behzti was taken off in Birmingham after violent demonstrations. And, with less publicity, the management of the Derby Assembly Rooms was spooked into cancelling a production of Jerry Springer - The Opera. This new law can only make artists more wary of tackling religious subjects.

Late news from Wittenberg: A young theologian has been arrested for nailing 95 theses to the church door. "We can't allow this sort of thing," says Inspector von Knacker, "it might offend somebody."

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