Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002
Chairman: Welcome, members of the Home Office team.
This is a public meeting now and we are on television, whether
we get broadcast is another thing. As it is a public meeting,
I am going to ask very quickly that the Members of the Select
Committee go round the table under the Code of Practice and say
whether there is any interest that they wish to declare. If there
is not, there is not but I will just give them the opportunity
to do so. Lord Griffiths?
Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach: I am a Christian
and a member of the Church of England and involved in various
Lord Bhatia: I am a cross-bencher and I come
from the Muslim community. I chair also a foundation called the
Ethnic Minority Foundation which has amongst its network many
Lord Grabiner: I am Jewish and I am a member
of an orthodox grouping within the Jewish religion called the
Lord Avebury: I am Buddhist and I am the Patron
of the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy.
Chairman: I am a member of the Church of England
and am a church warden. I was brought up in the Episcopalian Church
of Scotland, otherwise I have nothing which is not in the Register.
Baroness Richardson of Calow: I am an ordained
minister of the Methodist Church. I am Moderator of the Church's
Commission for Interfaith Relations.
Baroness Perry of Southwark: I am a member of
the Church of England. I am Anglican. I am a former church warden
and I have been very much involved with the Council of Christians
and Jews' work.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead: I am a practising
Roman Catholic and have received a Papal Knighthood.
Earl of Mar and Kellie: I am a Presbyterian
and a member of the Church of Scotland and a member of the Kirk
session of the parish church of Clackmannan.
Baroness Wilcox: I am Church of England.
1. Remember that will now do but if there is
anything special which turns up at any particular meeting then
the code of conduct says you should mention it. Now, that formality
having been completed, could I ask the three of you to introduce
(Mr Weatherill) Yes. Thank you, my Lord Chairman,
for that welcome. I am Richard Weatherill and I am Head of the
Race Equality Unit of the Home Office. We are part of the Home
Office's Community Policy Directorate. On my right hand side is
Neil Stevenson who is a member of the Race Equality Unit and who
is our expert on racist crime, though I should say also that it
was Neil who, as it were, did the work on the provisions on incitement
to religious as well as racial hatred on the Anti-terrorism Crime
and Security Act, so that is his side of the fence. On my left
hand side is Valerie Keating. Mrs Keating is from the Home Office's
Sentencing and Offences Unit, a different part of the Home Office
but Valerie is our expert on blasphemy. These matters are dealt
with in different bits of the Home Office for historical reasons
but we will try and tell a single story.
2. You do not need to be told why we are sitting
here taking evidence on this matter. Could I just thank you for
sending the note about the law as it now is and as it would be
if the incitement to religious hatred is put into it, as has been
suggested by Lord Avebury in his Bill, very useful for those who
find a lot of difficulty going through statutes who make amendments
by reference. That is very helpful. There are quite a lot of questions
to ask you. I intend to finish at half past one or indeed before
if we can. I am going to invite you to deal with them either individually
or it may be in groups if you prefer. Of course any Member of
the Select Committee can ask supplementary questions on what you
say. Can I ask you to go ahead. It may be it will be that questions
one, two and three are a group which you can deal with together
but I will leave it to you. Two strands of our inquiry are clear:
amendment or abolition of longstanding offences such as blasphemy
and the introduction of a new offence of inciting religious hatred.
Are there any other issues under the heading of "religious
offences" which the Committee could or should examine? In
particular, are there any issues in relation to offences arising
out of religious discrimination? We have another question at the
end about that. Does the Home Office have a definition of "religious"?
I will leave it to you whether to deal with those individually
(Mr Weatherill) Let me attempt to deal with those
questions one by one. Could I just say one thing by way of general
introduction which concerns the position in Scotland and Northern
Ireland. I know we have some questions on that coming up. It is
simply that so far as Scotland is concerned, these are devolved
matters and they are reserved matters so far as Northern Ireland
is concerned. We are not experts, we cannot speak on behalf of
those parts of the United Kingdom. We are very happy to help the
Committee to the extent we can on factual things but if it goes
beyond the factual then it would be our colleagues in those other
parts of the United Kingdom who would need to be consulted.
3. You have to be experts on Wales.
(Mr Weatherill) We have to be expert on Wales and
I think the position in Wales is in all respects identical to
the position in England. Let me turn to the questions, if I may.
On the first one "Are there any other issues under the heading
of `religious offences' which the Committee could or should examine?"
we think not. The only other category with which the Committee
might want to be concerned is the category of what we call religiously
aggravated offences, offences which were introduced under the
Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act. Those offences have only
been on the statute book now for six months and we think it is
a bit early to be looking into what has happened as a result of
the introduction of those offences. In the normal course of events
the Department itself would be having a look at how those offences
have operated I guess in two or three years' time but I think
it is a bit too early to be doing that. We would suggest that
the scope of your inquiry is drawn as it should be.
(Mr Weatherill) The second question follows on from
that "Are there any issues in relation to offences arising
out of religious discrimination?" Again we think broadly
not. Discrimination in the United Kingdom has been dealt with,
generally speaking, as a civil matter, that has been the case
for discrimination on grounds of race as it has been for gender
and, indeed, for disability. There is, as the Committee will know,
further legislation coming along as a result of the European Race
and Employment Directives under Article 13 of the Community Treaty.
The Department of Trade and Industry have been carrying out a
consultation exercise about that. The consultation period ended
fairly recently and the responses to that are being looked at.
On this particular aspect we do not expect there to be any great
departure from the trend. We do not see anything arising narrowly
5. It would not be criminal law at any rate?
(Mr Weatherill) No, exactly so. It would continue
to be dealt with primarily as a civil matter.
(Mr Weatherill) On the third question "Does the
Home Office have a definition of `religious'?" Well, we do
not. The approach which the government adopted in the context
of the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Bill was not to include
any definition of "religion" or "religious"
on the face of the Bill. I think that follows the way that this
sort of thing has been dealt with in legal matters in most other
areas. There are some exceptions to that but by and large attempts
have not been made to define religions. We think that should there
be any issue about whether a particular group was a religious
group and needed protection from these provisions then it should
be for the courts to decide that on a case for case basis. Certainly
we do not have a ready made definition to assist on that.
Chairman: Does any Member have any questions
7. On that final point. There is an analogy
with the racial hatred provisions, is there not, in that you do
not define race? You define racial hatred and religious hatred
is defined in the Anti-terrorism Bill as it is in the draft for
my Bill. So the position is analogous, is it not, as between the
definitions of racial and religious?
(Mr Weatherill) Yes, it is not an analogy which had
occurred to me but yes. I suppose it is a little surprising that
a definition has not been incorporated because we tend to be quite
keen on spelling things out on the face of statutes but in this
particular example we did not think it was something which could
sensibly be done.
Earl of Mar and Kellie
8. Can I ask you whether the Home Office regards
the word "religious" as extending to supporters of football
teams, because the background not only in my native Scotland but
also in Liverpool and such like as I understand it is that there
appears to be a religious dimension to football supporters?
(Mr Weatherill) I think I am going to ask my expert
to comment on that but it does not sound like a religion to me.
9. I was not suggesting that football was a
(Mr Weatherill) I am sorry, your point is that there
may be a religious affiliation to do with support for a particular
(Mr Stevenson) Certainly it is something which is
likely to be considered in the Scottish Executive. The definition
of religious hatred in the Bill was raised, religious hatred against
a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or
lack of religious belief, so the group is defined in terms of
its religious belief. So a group of football supporters, if you
like, are not defined in terms of religious belief though they
may have a religious belief.
10. Singing songs which criticise them, do you
believe that would come into the extent of the Bill?
(Mr Stevenson) I think there is a difference between
singing songs criticising another football team and singing songs
criticising another religion or religious belief which may be
covered by the Bill.
11. I realise this was a marginal case but I
wondered how the Home Office was going to view it in England.
(Mr Stevenson) This is certainly the case in Scotland,
it is a real issue in Scotland. It is the case in football at
the moment that there are racial offences in football, racial
chanting, and the public order offences apply in football grounds.
It would apply in the same way as in any other.
Baroness Richardson of Calow
12. In the religious discrimination matters
the phrase is "religion or belief", is it a useful phrase
to be added to any non definition "religion or belief"?
(Mr Stevenson) Religion or belief is a fairly standard
construction in European law and in UN law and it is taken to
mean religion and lack of religious belief. In this Bill, and
certainly in the clause which was in the Anti-terrorism Crime
and Security Bill, the phrase religion and belief was felt not
to be specific enough for the criminal law which is why there
is a reference to religious beliefs or lack of religious belief
in this Bill and in the Anti-terrorism clause.
13. Why should a judge be any better at ascertaining
the correct meaning of the word than Parliament? I express that
rather curiously but is the reason for the lack of definition
the difficulty associated with finding one?
(Mr Weatherill) The argument is that a judge would
be dealing with one case at a time and that is quite a different
task from trying to define the generality of things across the
board. We are not suggesting that a particular judge should be
able to do what Parliament has not done but we are saying that
the judge would be looking at each case and would be able to enquire
into the particular circumstances of that case.
14. Would you have any views about the necessity
to call expert witnesses on what is or is not religious?
(Mr Stevenson) In the context of a court case?
15. Yes. The individual judge, he may have to
direct the jury, how are the jury going to decide it?
(Mr Stevenson) I think if we look at the analogy of
race cases again, where courts have certainly looked at what the
definition of a racial group is, and they have looked at expert
opinions on different aspects of different racial groups and ethnicity,
it is certainly possible that a judge could consider taking expert
evidence on the interpretation of a religious group.
16. It would be more likely to be the parties
which wished to introduce the material. I do not think the judge
would do it of his own accord.
(Mr Stevenson) Yes, it is distinctly possible.
17. It has been necessary for agencies of the
Government to produce ad hoc definitions of religions for particular
purposes. I am thinking of the prisons where the right of visiting
ministers to enter prisons and look after the spiritual needs
of people belonging to their faith are extended only to certain
religions and not to others who may claim to be religious. The
two particular cases are Rastafarians and Scientologists. The
Prison Service treats Rastafarians and Scientologists as being
not members of religions therefore not qualified to be visited
by visiting ministers. There may be other examples where particular
definitions are adopted for precise purposes but would not be
necessarily appropriate to the extent of the general law.
(Mr Weatherill) Exactly so and I am familiar, Lord
Avebury, with the example you give. The Government has not gone
through a list of religions or groupings and attempted to decide
which should or which should not be afforded the protection of
18. May I just say this, if any of you have
further thoughts about any of these points which have been raised
and you want to let us have a supplementary note afterwards, we
would be very pleased to have it.
(Mr Weatherill) Thank you.
19. Could I go on then to the question about
the Law Commission Report of 1985. Why has the Law Commission
Report not been implemented by legislation? Do you have a view
about the majority or minority report or neither? Can you just
give a little bit of reasoning if you have a view?
(Mrs Keating) As far as the Law Commission Report
goes you will appreciate that since 1985 we have had a number
of governments of different political views. However, the report
was rejected I think because it is such a very difficult issue.
It is an area that touches fundamental beliefs. Even the Law Commission
themselves were not absolutely unanimous about the best way forward.
In the absence of a very clear cut recommendation about the way
forward the Government felt that it would be a mistake to seek