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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. I understand that very well but my question is why is that an improvement, why is it better to make it a criminal act than to give me my rights and to give all other citizens of this country their rights to practise their religion freely and to take somebody to court under civil law if those rights are interfered with?
  (Mr Weatherill) Incitement to racial hatred has been on the statute book as a criminal offence since the 1970s. What is being suggested here is that we have seen through the way that the provision has operated that it has operated in an anomalous way and we wish to ensure that the protection afforded by that offence extends to all those that we believe should be protected.

  61. You do not think that the Human Rights Act gives protection?
  (Mr Weatherill) Not sufficient protection.

Lord Grabiner

  62. I do not want to teach you to suck eggs, and I doubt I would succeed even if I tried, but it ought to be possible to devise some scenarios which would reveal what is currently perceived to be a gap or gaps in the existing legislation without divulging the details or concerns about current litigation.
  (Mr Weatherill) By all means. The whole of the loophole exists in relation to Muslims who do not count as a racial group for the purposes of the existing incitement to racial hatred offence. If I stand up in public and utter threatening, abusive or insulting words with the intention of stirring up hatred against Muslims I do not commit a criminal offence, so there is your example. That would also be the case if I stood up and did the same in relation to Christians.


  63. Is there not an aspect of this which perhaps touches on what Lady Perry was asking. The advantage of having a criminal offence is that the prosecuting authorities can deal with something which it may be too threatening for an individual citizen to take to the civil courts.
  (Mr Weatherill) That would certainly be the case. One is simply saying that this is a matter which we believe society should deal with so seriously that it should be a matter for the public authorities and all the apparatus of the criminal law should be available.
  (Mrs Keating) Obviously if found guilty of a criminal offence then the individual is liable to punishment and imprisonment whereas with the civil offence that would not be the case. It is a much greater sign of public opprobrium than a civil offence would be.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

  64. Is the Home Office doing any work on the law as it applies to election material circulated at times of elections? The local government elections earlier this year threw up some very dreadful experiences for a number of people in minority groups. I wonder if the Home Office is calling for examples of some of this literature that caused offence to be examined?
  (Mr Stevenson) We have had representations about some literature which arises from election campaigns. The law applies equally to election material, there is no exemption for election material, and that matter was referred to the police.

  65. Is anything happening about it where it is quite clear that this has caused offence? The question was about gaps in the present legislation. Is there a need in view of what has been witnessed for that gap to be plugged? I am not referring to a particular party but to the law as it applies to circulating this material.
  (Mr Stevenson) I think the gaps that exist in the existing law are the same for general material as they are for election material, so the gaps that deal with election material are the same that we are talking about here.

  66. You are looking at what was—
  (Mr Stevenson) In the sense that any changes to the existing law would apply to election material.

  67. You are examining the things that were circulated earlier this year?
  (Mr Stevenson) We have seen that material, yes.
  (Mr Weatherill) Just to repeat what Neil has said, we did examine the material and we passed it to the police because we believed a criminal offence may have been committed.

Lord Griffiths of Ffforestfach

  68. I have no feeling for how significant a social problem incitement to religious hatred is. Is there any sense of some scale as to how widespread this may be or how serious it is? Do people write to Ministers about it and say "the Crown Prosecution Service let me down" or "the police let me down" and so on? Is there any sense that you can give us of its significance?
  (Mr Weatherill) It is difficult to know how one would measure it. I think I would answer that question by saying that this area of law, incitement to racial hatred, has never given rise to a larger number of cases in the courts. I do not believe if the law is extended in the manner that it would be under Lord Avebury's Bill that that would change. We are not looking at a large number of cases coming before the courts. Generally where those cases do come about you are talking about pretty serious stuff and the Government would say you are talking about behaviour which really should not be tolerated in a civilised society. The scale of it is difficult to measure but the nuisance we would say is serious.

Baroness Richardson of Calow

  69. Can I continue that, and it is speculative I know, but had this been on the statute books, for example, in the riots in Burnley and Bradford, what effect might it have had on calming any of that situation or bringing any of the perpetrators more clearly to justice?
  (Mr Stevenson) It is extremely difficult to say. I think the incitement offence, if it had been used in those situations, would have been used before the riot. The riot is a different kind of behaviour. Whether there is any behaviour which could have stirred up hatred to such an extent that a riot occurs, and at that stage in the process that may have occurred, we are not aware of specific cases where we could say that there was evidence of behaviour in those circumstances in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford specifically on religious grounds.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

  70. May I say, my Lord Chairman, that in the report into the Burnley disturbances we made it very clear that we did not want them described as "riots", they were disturbances. It would be worth you looking at the report and recommendations for the period that led up to the disturbances on 23, 24 and 25 June last year.
  (Mr Stevenson) We have. What I was trying to get at was the difference between racial and religious hatred in this regard. There was some careful consideration whether there was incitement to racial hatred prior to the disturbances in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford.


  71. This is really the heart of this particular issue. The difficulty that we are in is you have told us that the Home Office still considers that there is a good case for introducing a variety of offences of incitement to religious hatred but you cannot tell us why in relation to anything that is current because that might prejudice current proceedings and in answer to Lord Griffiths you said you have not really got anything very firm to go on. Why does the Government take this view at all? What is the basis for your view?
  (Mr Weatherill) If that is what you understood me to be saying, my Lord Chairman, I clearly was not expressing myself as well as I should.

  72. Have another go.
  (Mr Weatherill) I am sure the European Monitoring Centre's report will help the Committee. I see exactly the difficulty the Committee is in. Perhaps if I may I can go back to the office and have another look at some of the material we have got and see if there is a way that we can help you on that.

  73. I have looked at the European Monitoring report, the difficulty about it is that it is very unspecific too and it is not very helpful for us to try and pinpoint what it is that we ought to be considering in this context. I welcome any further help you can give.
  (Mr Weatherill) We will go and see what further help we can give the Committee.

Lord Bhatia

  74. We were talking about cases that may have been reported and not taken forward but do you have any feel for cases that never get reported because many communities have felt unprotected and there is a feeling of "what's the use" because nobody listens?
  (Mr Stevenson) It is certainly the case in our experience of racial hatred cases that they are considerably under reported so I would imagine there would be a considerable number of cases which have not been reported. It is certainly the case that in discussions that we have had with the Muslim community we have heard of cases raised by the Muslim community with us which the Muslim community did not raise with the police. We have encouraged the Muslim community to raise those particular cases with the police. Yes, I think we would accept there are likely to be several cases which have not been reported.

  75. Under reported?
  (Mr Stevenson) Yes.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

  76. But surely if people on a housing estate or in an area of a city begin to incite their fellow citizens to violence against another group it does not matter whether it is on the grounds of race or religion or anything else, they are committing a crime.
  (Mr Stevenson) That is correct, yes. It is a different offence. We have to make the distinction here between incitement to violence, which is a crime in itself, and the specific area of incitement to hatred, hatred itself not being a crime, so it is a very specific, narrower range of behaviour that we are talking about which falls between on one side the incitement to a crime and on the other side aggravated offences.

  77. Is that not exactly the problem where you bump into free speech? There are non-believers, atheists, who feel extremely strongly that religion has caused immense problems in society, is the background to many wars and many unpleasant things. Are they no longer able to say that? If we created a law of incitement to religious hatred ---- I happen to have a faith but supposing I were an atheist and I wanted to say in an intellectual context that I believed religion was the greatest evil that destroyed Western Europe and much of the world in the last 500 years, could I not say that any more?
  (Mr Stevenson) Yes, you can. The law says that you cannot use threatening, abusive or insulting language intended to stir up racial or religious hatred. The language in itself has to be threatening, abusive or insulting. I think we make a clear distinction between criticism of a religion and religious practices and actual inciting hatred against members of that group because of those practices. That is the distinction that the Government made when it presented the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security provisions and it is a distinction that exists in incitement to racial hatred where it is not an offence to advocate racial superiority, for example, in some cases where it can be, if you use threatening, abusive or insulting language, designed to stir up racial hatred.

Lord Avebury

  78. It seems to me that although it is too early for the Home Office to say anything about the effect of the law on aggravated offences, because the aggravated offences are, if you like, the end product of incitement, that is what they lead to in the end, to violence against members of religious minorities because of their membership of those minorities, it would be useful for us to have some statistical evidence from the Home Office as to what has happened in the courts so far.
  (Mr Weatherill) In relation to racially aggravated offences?

  79. Yes.
  (Mr Weatherill) These are offences which have been in operation for less than six months.

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