Private Notice Question
Asked By Lord Taverne
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their justification for denying Mr Geert Wilders entry into the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I am aware that Mr Wilders holds views highly offensive to the Muslim community, but freedom of speech issues often raise awkward questions. Indeed, this ban has united in opposition the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, the Dutch Government—unusual allies—and also a section of the Muslim community which cares about freedom of expression. Does the Home Office agree that causing offence, even deep offence, to particular religious groups is no reason for compromising on the principle of freedom of expression? Why else did we repeal the laws on blasphemy? Since this is a ban on an EU citizen and Member of Parliament who has been convicted of no offence, and who has been invited to a private showing of a film in this House—not a rally in Trafalgar Square—does it not set a deeply disturbing precedent for the vital question of freedom of expression?
My Lords, the Government and I are great believers in freedom of expression. Indeed, I am constantly getting into trouble because I am too free with my expressions at times. But the decision was not based purely on the film “Fitna”, but also on a range of factors, including prosecution in the Netherlands for incitement and discrimination, and other statements. The Home Secretary has to make a decision, as was said, on anyone coming in if they are a threat to public policy or public security in particular. We are constantly looking at this and are very robust about it with all sorts of extremists, from whichever corner they come. I regularly, across my desk, have to give advice to the Home Secretary about stopping people coming into this country, because I do not think it is appropriate that they should be here. I think it is good that we are being robust about this, and absolutely appropriate that the Home Secretary should have made this decision.
My Lords, there is effectively a list of things the Home Secretary will check through when she is making a decision about whether someone should be allowed into this country. Of course, as the House will well know, quite often we will say that someone should not come into this country, but they then appeal and, through our judicial system, it is decided that they should be allowed to do so. One of the great strengths and joys of this country is that there is a very robust approach to these things. Sometimes, it surprises many of us that that person is allowed to come in and continue to say things—that seems very strange, whatever persuasion they come from. There is a list, and it is checked through. As I said, the Home Secretary thought long and hard about this. The decision was based on a whole raft of things, not just on this film. I believe that it was the correct decision.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for asking this Question. I suggest to the Minister—perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong—that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty. I only have one question, because I know that we do not want to spend long on this. Does the noble Lord think that this situation would have occurred if Mr Wilders had said, “Ban the Bible”? If it would not have occurred, why not? Surely, the violence and the disturbance that may arise from showing this film in this country is not caused by the film, which merely attempts to show how the violent Islamist uses the Koran to perpetrate his terrible acts, but by the jihadist, the violent Islamist. In doing what the Government have done, surely they are therefore guilty of appeasement.
My Lords, I certainly do not think that we are guilty of appeasement in any way whatever. I do not want to go down the route of discussing a hypothetical case about what if he had talked about this or that. I am afraid that I am rather constrained about exactly what I can say about him. He is under prosecution in the Netherlands for incitement and discrimination. Clearly, anything that I say in this House could become involved in that, and I would not wish that to happen. It would be wrong if that was the case. Also, he can appeal against the Home Secretary’s decision, and anything that I say could be used there.
As I said, we are very robust across the board. We take no sides on this. We treat people whom we believe are a threat to the security and safety of this nation in exactly the same way, from whatever cloth they come; that is extremely important. I believe that this was the right decision.
My Lords, the Minister has talked about incitement, and reference has been made to the possibility of counterprotests. These are public order matters. The criterion that the Minister should be operating under is public security, which is a different thing.
My Lords, will the Minister comment on one matter, which might enable us to make up our minds? Who brought this matter to the attention of the Home Secretary? Since this man is an EU citizen, he does not have to apply specially to come to our country. How did this become a matter of public policy?
My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give my noble friend an answer to that question, because I am not quite sure how it came to the attention of the Home Secretary. I was first aware of this about a week ago. I do not know the answer. Perhaps I can write to my noble friend when I can discover the answer.
My Lords, 20 years ago, the Government were robust in their defence of Mr Salman Rushdie when he published the book The Satanic Verses. This book provoked a number of riots and demonstrations, as we all know, and some violence within the community. Nevertheless, the Government remained steadfast in their defence on a free-speech basis. What has changed?
My Lords, I do not think that anything has changed. There is a difference in that I think Salman Rushdie was based in this country when he was writing his book. I am sure that other factors are involved. If today he was writing things that we felt were going to cause a real problem—I have to be careful here because we are going into hypothetical areas—we would be as robust. We are robust, as I said, whatever people’s cloth, if we believe it is something that goes beyond just having an extreme view. Of course people can have extreme views. I am sure that all of us have views about things that no one would challenge although we might not agree with them; those are things that one is allowed to have. This is a step beyond. As I say, I do not want to talk in full detail about this. It is to do with a whole range of factors, including Geert Wilders’ prosecution and other statements. I think that it was the correct decision.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister has looked at precedent. Will he please tell us the last time that a democratically elected politician from an EU country was denied access to Great Britain and the last time that a democratically elected politician was denied access to speak in this House?
My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that. I shall have to come back to the noble Lord in writing, if I may. I do not like making excuses, but I was aware of this Question only about 23 minutes ago and there were two Questions in between. I feel rather like Eugene Esmonde, who, 67 years ago today, flew a few Swordfish at the “Gneisenau”, “Scharnhorst” and “Prinz Eugen”; he got a VC for doing it but, sadly, he was lost. I feel that I am similarly stepping into the breach; I do not know the answer and I will get back to the noble Lord in writing.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that, in a democracy, there will always be people who will not have the electoral outcome of their choice? Does he also accept that those people, too, have the right to hold their views, unpalatable though they might be, and that it is not the role of government and public policy to gag them?
My Lords, is not the essence of this public order? There is a raft of considerations, but the essence is public order. One cannot ask for a reply because it was a decision of the Home Secretary and one really has to leave it at that. What else can one do?
My Lords, I think that it is correct that one can question these things on the Floor of this House. It is difficult to go into detail at the moment because this is subject to a lot of legal issues, but I say again that I believe that the Home Secretary has made the right decision in this case. As for what happens in this House, that is a matter for the House authorities and not for the Home Secretary.