The comedian Rowan Atkinson today urged the government to compromise on its controversial religious hatred bill and to accept changes made by peers that strengthen the rights of performers to criticise religion.
The comedian, famous for his roles as Mr Bean and Blackadder, expressed his frustration at the government for refusing to so far back down on what he called a “chilling” threat to free speech.
At a cross-party meeting urging MPs to support the lords’ amendments, Mr Atkinson called on ministers to cut themselves free from their “Thunderbirds puppet strings”, being pulled, he said, by factions within the Muslim community.
Peers defeated the government last year to insert a “triple lock” into the legislation aimed at preventing repression of free speech.
Fearing a rebellion when the bill is debated in the Commons tomorrow, the government tabled amendments to include a tougher “recklessness test” last Thursday.
Today Mr Atkinson claimed the police would still err on the side of caution and that would result in comedians being arrested and plays closed.
The changes by peers would restrict the new offence of inciting religious hatred to threatening words and behaviour rather than a wider definition also covering insults and abuse.
Secondly, they would require the offence to be intentional. They would also specify that proselytising, discussion, criticism, insult, abuse and ridicule of religion, belief or religious practice would not be an offence.
Mr Atkinson said, “Ridiculous, outmoded or hateful religious practices need to be criticised and exposed.
“But because you cannot criticise practices without implicating the practitioners, practitioners are bound to be caught in the crossfire and in my opinion, they should just accept that.
“If the exposure of hateful or ridiculous religious practices generates dislike of that religion’s followers, they should accept that also and not seek legal immunity.
They cannot renounce responsibility for their practices. They should defend them, justify them, or correct them. What is so frustrating for the creative community is the intransigence of the government on this issue when the amendment proposed by the Lords is such a workable compromise.”
The shadow attorney general, Dominic Grieve, said the vote tomorrow evening was of “great importance”, adding that Conservatives were committed to freedom of speech and believed government plans would undermine it.
The Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris said: “Tuesday’s vote will be the last and best chance for parliament to protect freedom of speech.
“Unless these safeguards are kept in place, the chilling effect of this new offence would stifle free expression and set community against community – each seeking to prosecute others for perceived insult.”