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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002

MR RICHARD WEATHERILL, MR NEIL STEVENSON AND MRS VALERIE KEATING

Chairman

  40. I still think however, if I may say so, that we would like a note upon the non-public activities which are covered by that 1860 Act because I think there may be something there that is not susceptible to being dealt with in any other way. It would be very helpful if you could tell us.
  (Mrs Keating) Yes, we will look at that.

  41. We then asked are there any developments affecting these offences since the Law Commission reported in 1985? These offences being the common law and the statutory offences.
  (Mrs Keating) No, there are not.

Lord Avebury

  42. Would you have a list of the cases that have been heard in the courts under these provisions and particularly the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act?
  (Mrs Keating) Are you talking about the provisions in clause 1(2).

  43. The repeals, yes.
  (Mrs Keating) I could check but I doubt that there will be an awful lot.

  44. As part of the note it would be quite useful to know what cases have been brought.
  (Mrs Keating) If we have anything it might be statistical information rather than details of cases. I am perfectly happy to check and see what we can turn up.

Chairman

  45. See what you can do, please. The problem is probably going to be that they are not in a court of record and therefore there will no report of them, they will be either in a magistrates' court or Crown Court so we will never have anything except a transcript that has probably never been transcribed. We asked has the Law Commission given any further consideration to this subject and we have since heard the answer and it is no. Then the territorial extent of these offences I think you have already dealt with. In Scotland it is a matter that has been devolved. In Wales we are dealing with it on the same basis as England. In Northern Ireland it is reserved, which means to say it is dealt with here or in Belfast?
  (Mrs Keating) There are two possibilities. It is reserved. It means that the Northern Ireland Assembly could pass primary legislation approved by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on this subject or we could do an order in the Parliament here to make changes to it.

  46. But there is no pressure from Northern Ireland to do anything, is there?
  (Mrs Keating) No.
  (Mr Weatherill) Not in relation to blasphemy.

  47. We then asked if there are different offences in force in Scotland or Northern Ireland. We have a copy of the 1987 Northern Ireland Order. In Scotland I think there is a very different common law offence concerning this material. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
  (Mrs Keating) I could tell you a little bit about it. Again, I need to stress that obviously here we are not experts on Scottish law but we will do our best to help. For the detail the Scottish Executive would be the best people to turn to. In Scotland it is a crime of common law to publish or expose for sale blasphemous works which are intended to asperse, vilify, ridicule and bring into contempt the Holy Scriptures of Christian religion. The last reported conviction for blasphemy in Scotland was in 1843 and it is very unlikely that any further prosecutions will be brought. Publications which might be considered blasphemous in content can presently be dealt with as indecent publications, while blasphemous statements made in circumstances likely to provoke a breach of the peace can be prosecuted under the common law as a breach of the peace. I understand that presently there are no plans to change the law.

  48. And if the breach of the peace is aggravated there is a substantially increased penalty as I understand it?
  (Mrs Keating) I would assume so, that is the normal practice. As I say, I am not an expert on Scottish law.

  49. I think we have already discovered that the Scottish Parliament or Executive are expressing views on the issue concerning blasphemy. Do you know what they are doing about what was not put into the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001?
  (Mr Weatherill) The Scots have set up what I think is called a cross-party working group to look at all the issues and that is still in progress, we do not know what the outcome of that is.

  50. So that is incitement to religious hatred, is it?
  (Mr Weatherill) Indeed.

  51. Perhaps we could go on to incitement to religious hatred. After the 2001 Act was passed with Section 39 in it what gaps remain in the criminal law in relation to offences based on religious hatred? You wanted to have what is now clause 2 in Lord Avebury's Bill. Do you still think that such a series of offences is necessary and should be on the statute book?
  (Mr Weatherill) Yes, the position so far as the Government is concerned remains as Lord Bassam outlined it on the Second Reading of Lord Avebury's Bill. Even before September 11 of last year it was clear that we were in an anomalous position because the courts had held that the existing law on incitement to racial hatred had the effect of protecting some religious groups where those groups could be defined by reference to their race but not to others. So, for example, it seemed that Jews and Sikhs were protected but Christians and Muslims were not protected. After September 11 we all saw an upsurge in the sort of behaviour which this offence is designed to protect us from. It was for that reason that the Government decided to include in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill the provisions that were included and the case has not become any weaker.

  52. All the same, have you got specific examples of occurrences where it would have been useful for law enforcement agencies to have that common offence but where they were unable to act because of the lack of it?
  (Mr Weatherill) There are examples, I can give the Committee that assurance. Quite a lot of the things I am thinking of are very current, things which are still being investigated by the law enforcement agencies. If you will forgive me, I do not think I would want to be in the position of giving you specific examples which are still being examined. We thought quite hard about how we could best assist the Committee on this. There is something called the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia who have produced a report on events of this kind since September 11 and I think the best thing we can do is give you a copy of that.

  53. We have that.
  (Mr Weatherill) You have got it. If you want to follow up any specific things on that after this session we will be very happy to do that. That provides the fullest possible picture of the situation as it now appears.

  54. You cannot help us for the reasons you have given at this stage?
  (Mr Weatherill) That is correct. I can only repeat certainly from material I have seen that I am personally satisfied that there is a gap which needs to be filled.

  Chairman: This may well give rise to some questions from other Members.

Lord Bhatia

  55. Continuing from what you have just said, I think the law as it stands at the moment may be silent on certain issues. If I can give you an example. There has been an attack based on religious grounds post 11 September, it gets reported to the police and the police take two views. One is there is an existing law which allows them to take this forward or they may wish to go to the prosecutor's office to find out whether that is correct or not. You have said that you will be sending us more information on current cases coming through but is there any evidence at this point in time that you can give us which says that the police themselves are unable to act because the law does not provide for it, or the prosecution service did not think it was something that would work in the courts?
  (Mr Weatherill) I would like to help but I am very reluctant to get drawn into specific cases, I do not think that is quite what Government's role should be. We can certainly have another look at the material we have and see if there is anything we can give you that would help. I would commend the European Monitoring Centre's report as a good digest.

Lord Avebury

  56. What might be helpful is to know whether you have received any representations about the lack of powers that are available to the police from religious groups and from local authorities.
  (Mr Stevenson) Certainly from the Muslim community we have had representations on the lack of an incitement to religious hatred.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

  57. I want to ask about the Human Rights Act and whether that does not provide wide powers of protection. I forget which articles they are that give the right to religious freedom, freedom of expression, but would that not cover a great many of the kinds of worries that people have about religious offences?
  (Mr Weatherill) The Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights confer rights but they do not in themselves create criminal offences. What we are talking about here is creating sanctions against types of behaviour which we wish to prevent. The Human Rights Act in itself does not do that.

  58. But if somebody tries to persecute me or interfere with my rights to practise my religion freely and openly then I can take them to court under the Human Rights Act.
  (Mr Weatherill) As a civil matter.

  59. Yes.
  (Mr Weatherill) But that would be as between one individual and another. Here what we are trying to do is create criminal sanctions which enable the public authorities to take criminal proceedings against perpetrators.


 
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