Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)

WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002

MR RICHARD WEATHERILL, MR NEIL STEVENSON AND MRS VALERIE KEATING

  20. Can I just ask a first supplementary myself. Do you see any dangers in stirring up this particular subject by trying to introduce legislation?
  (Mrs Keating) By trying to introduce legislation to repeal the Act or to do something else?

  21. Well, it could be to repeal, as the majority suggested, without replacement but would that in itself be likely, in your view, to stir up a number of people or organisations to say that they need to be covered rather than the whole thing should be repealed?
  (Mrs Keating) I think the debates which went on when the amendment was put down during the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Bill quite clearly demonstrate that the strength of feeling on this issue really has not changed since the initial reaction to the 1985 Report. It is still something on which people have very deeply felt views and convictions. It is still not an easy matter to decide to repeal or replace.
  (Mr Weatherill) Just to amplify that. The Government is not in any way suggesting that these are matters which should not be discussed. On the contrary, I think the Home Secretary has indicated he is very, very keen that the debate should be continued and certainly would not wish in any way to prevent the issues from being ventilated.

  Chairman: I think you are speaking to the converted. We have no option.

Lord Avebury

  22. Is it not obvious that some members of the Church of England would have wished to maintain their privileges as they did in 1985 and as they have done consistently all through the years down since that point? Did it not occur to the Home Office after the majority recommendation for the abolition of blasphemy to consult with the Church of England and to see whether there was a majority within the Synod or more widely?
  (Mrs Keating) I think that in 1985 we certainly had a different administration in place then. There were views put forward by those groupings to the Law Commission and they made their views known and they were recorded in the Law Commission Report as I recollect.

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach

  23. Could I ask: do you feel there is any reason at present to revisit this particular issue of blasphemy? Do you feel there is a particular need from the community or from relationships between various religious groupings within our country which makes it a priority or do you feel that, as the Chairman has said, it simply stirs up very deep seated feelings to have this item taken out and examined and looked at again?
  (Mrs Keating) I think the Government position on it is quite clear that they want to have a constructive debate about it but certainly Lord Rooker, I think it was, made it clear again during the debate on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act that at the moment this was not one of the Government's priorities. They had a full legislative programme in place and the view then was then was not the time to seek to legislate on this. However, against that, the Home Secretary has made his personal position very clear in that he personally would like to see the end of the law on blasphemy. I think the Government is not opposed in principle to legislation but I think that they do think that a constructive debate needs to be held, but that is not to say that at some future time they may not decide to act on it.

Lord Bhatia

  24. As the law stands at the moment there is a blasphemy law which protects certain parts of the Christian church. Some time in 1986 the Race Relations Act was amended to protect the Jewish and the Sikh communities and that is very good, there are two other interest groups that have protection beyond the blasphemy law. Do you think there is some way in which the rest of the faiths could be protected and where would that be?
  (Mrs Keating) I think that again is one of the problems which is identified in the Law Commission's Report. Quite clearly, the current offence is anachronistic in that it only does apply, as you say, to a small section of the Christian faith. The problem I think comes, and has been identified, in how it could be extended to cover other religions without actually impeding people's rights to freedom of speech, freedom of expression. I think it is just recognised as something which would be extremely difficult to do.

Lord Avebury

  25. Would you not agree, therefore, just considering the Government's commitment to religious equality in all other spheres of our national life, that it is incongruous to have a law remaining on the statute books which protects the members of one religion only and not those of any other religion? Therefore, have we not got a stark choice between either extending the law on blasphemy so that it covers every religion or abolishing the existing offence and leaving it to the Public Order Act or any other legislation we may seek to devise of a general nature and not specifically one religion to deal with the evils which one supposes have been tackled in the past by the blasphemy law?
  (Mrs Keating) I think you are right in identifying the two options. Certainly you could repeal it, you could extend it, or the third option, of course, is to do nothing, which has been the one which is currently in force. I think part of the reason why there is not any great pressure to do this is because it is not a law which is actually used. It has not been used since, I think, 1922 in England and in Scotland I think it goes back to 1843, since there were public prosecutions. In the UK the only recent prosecution was the 1970 Gay News case so it is not a law that is used. Therefore, I do not think that one can say that it has evil consequences because there is not any evidence to support that it does as it is not used.

  26. Can you just confirm the Gay News case could not have happened if it had been today because there is no right under the law as it now stands for a private individual to bring proceedings as Mrs Whitehouse did in the Gay News case, although it was taken over by the Attorney-General, she could not do that if she was still alive today and the circumstances arose, it is not any longer possible for a private individual to launch proceedings of that nature?
  (Mrs Keating) Yes.

Lord Grabiner

  27. Are you aware of any evidence to suggest that the presence of the blasphemy law—it is not statute but common law—has had any impact whatsoever on the way people behave?
  (Mrs Keating) No.

Lord Avebury

  28. There is the case of the video of St Teresa of Avila where there was, as it were, prior scrutiny by the authorities which licensed the videos and they concluded, and it was upheld in the European Court, that they were within their rights in deciding that that particular video could have been blasphemous and was therefore forbidden from publication.
  (Mrs Keating) Therefore I retract my comment in the light of your greater knowledge.

Lord Grabiner

  29. Apart from that example, are you aware of any others?
  (Mrs Keating) I am not aware of any, no. That is not to say that there may not be other examples but none that I am aware of.

  30. None that the Home Office has done any research on or investigation of?
  (Mrs Keating) Yes.

Lord Bhatia

  31. If the blasphemy law was evident in other faiths, do you think the usage of that law would be far greater?
  (Mrs Keating) I am afraid I do not think I can really comment on that. So much would depend on the way in which the law was framed and what it sought to achieve. I do not honestly think I can give an answer to that hypothetical question.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

  32. Just returning to Lord Grabiner's point. Are there not in our laws already ways of dealing with people who behave in an abusive or threatening manner to people about their religion or indeed about any other aspect of their private lives? Would extending, for example, the law on blasphemy to all religions give anything other than what our existing laws already give us?
  (Mrs Keating) Certainly there are a number of laws - I think probably Neil may be a greater expert on some of these than I am - which enable individuals to be prosecuted if they are offensive. Certainly as far as physical assaults and threats go, there is quite a wide variety of legal provision which would cover anybody in the country.
  (Mr Stevenson) Certainly there are offences and I have in mind particularly Sections 4, 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act, of which there are religiously aggravated versions which are about threatening, abusive and insulting behaviour which causes an individual harassment, alarm and distress. They are directed at individuals. The difference between those offences in terms of the blasphemy laws is that the blasphemy laws are directed at the faith and not the individuals or members of that group.

Chairman

  33. Did you want to add something, Mr Weatherill?
  (Mr Weatherill) I think Neil has made my point.

Earl of Mar and Kellie

  34. On the subject of the option of extending blasphemy to other faiths, would that not pose a problem of the competing claims of each religion, for example that they are the true religion, would that not in fact lead to an incredible mushrooming of blasphemy cases as each official religion says the other is making a blasphemous remark?
  (Mrs Keating) I think you are right that if the law was extended to cover other religions, apart from the difficulty that I have mentioned already and which has been touched on earlier about how you define religious beliefs and who would be in, who would be out, I am sure you are right that perhaps if it was extended there would quite possibly initially be a number of test cases to test out the law but I do not think we could then predict how many there would be after that. Given the lack of use of the existing law for the particular area of faith that it covers, I think it is far from clear that apart from testing it out initially that there would be huge numbers of cases, but again we are speculating.
  (Mr Weatherill) It seems to me what lies behind all these questions is the overriding consideration which is I think certainly we have not seen a way in which either the blasphemy law as it stands presently, or some modified version of it, could be extended from Christianity to protect other religions without really going very far into free speech. We have just not seen how it could be done.

Chairman

  35. Thank you very much. I think you have really dealt with our question six: Do you consider that it would be sensible or feasible to extend the criminal law on blasphemy etc to other religions or beliefs? I think you have all answered that. Then we ask this: the list of offences, which includes some statutory ones listed in Clause 1 of Lord Avebury's Bill, is that a complete and correct list in addition to the two common law offences? Could I ask you, also, because I have been looking again at the Law Commission's Report, is there something special about Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860 which deals with things which would not be susceptible for handling under Public Order even if we extended it? For instance, the example they gave there is the pig's head put in the Mosque and there is also the desecration of cemeteries and that sort of thing which that particular section may still be alive and able to deal with.
  (Mrs Keating) I have not looked at it particularly in the light of the Public Order Provisions, certainly we could go away and do that and give you a note on that subject if it would be helpful.

  36. Otherwise is the list complete?
  (Mrs Keating) Otherwise the list is complete, yes, and of course that section is particularly useful because it does cover other religions, it is not confined.

  37. Section 2 covers a very wide range of activities but not Public Order ones necessarily.
  (Mr Weatherill) If we may we will go away and look at that point again for you. That aside, after a very thorough search by the lawyers we think this is a complete list.

  38. But the Law Commission made a very sensible series of comments on this particular matter.
  (Mr Weatherill) We need to look at that again.

Lord Avebury

  39. The example that was given in the 1985 Report was of some demonstrators who stood up and denounced Harold Wilson's policy on Vietnam in the middle of a church service. Do you think that it is necessary or desirable to have on the statute book a provision which makes it an offence to do something of that nature in a religious building when it would be perfectly legal if Harold Wilson had been in a public meeting of any other sort?
  (Mr Weatherill) On the face of it, no, but I will go and revisit the report just to check on that.


 
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