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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 105-119)




  105. I welcome all three of you on behalf of the Select Committee. We are very grateful to you indeed for coming. I would be very grateful if, in introducing yourselves, you would give us a thumbnail sketch of the background you bring to our deliberations. We have your CVs but they will not get on to the transcript, and your practical experience will be very valuable indeed, and I would like to make sure the public realises what it is.

  (Mr Fahy) I am Peter Fahy, at present Deputy Chief Constable, Surrey Police. I hold responsibility within the Association of Chief Police Officers for relations with the religious groups. I have 21 years of police service. I spent 8 years in the West Midlands Police, working in the areas of Smethwick and Coventry, where I had a lot of experience of dealing with minority groups and some difficult situations. In my current portfolio, my main involvement has been since September 11, working very closely with representatives of the Muslim Hindu community, in building up trust and making sure there was a national approach to trying to reduce the amount of tension amongst communities. I have been involved in an amount of work on issues of Islamaphobia, and also, very importantly, putting together a national policy for police officers, indeed all members of police staff who wish to follow their faith.
  (Mr Tucker) I am David Tucker, Detective Chief Inspector with the Metropolitan Police. I have worked within the Diversity Directorate. The aim of that was to take forward the recommendations from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report, and we have expanded the remit to try to involve all communities in policing within London. I have also worked with Mr Fahy on the national picture in relation to Islamic issues. I also have connections with the Jewish community and the Sikh community and, through other officers in my work, with a number of other faith groups, most notably the Christian Police Association, and the black majority churches.
  (Mr Baines) I am Martin Baines, Police Inspector, with West Yorkshire Police. I am currently Bradford Community and Race Relations Officer in the city. I work for the police commanders and Chief Constable of West Yorkshire strategically on race relations across the district. Over the last 28 years or so, I have worked mainly in the city with the minority communities from across all the communities that reside within Bradford. Specifically within the last seven years, I have been the Race Relations Officer for the city. My background is very much at an operational and strategic level on race relations.

  106. Thank you very much. That does, I think, qualify all three of you to talk about matters that we are concerned with. You had a list of questions. The easiest thing is probably to go straight on with those. Will you please decide amongst yourselves who wants to answer the question? That does not mean to say that others cannot come in as well. The first question was to ask you whether the existing powers under criminal powers were adequate, or whether you think there are any gaps.
  (Mr Fahy) My feeling is that there are still gaps that remain. We feel that changes that were made in the recent legislation to allow religiously aggravated offences, to some extent have been overlooked by a lot of commentators, and indeed some police forces and prosecution authorities. To some extent, we are still catching up, in terms of putting out guidance to police forces and individual police officers and having systems for recording those offences. There are still some anomalies within the law, in that religious offences can be racially aggravated. We still see a basic gap in the fact that incitement to racial hatred is covered by the law, but incitement to religious hatred is not. It is worth saying for the record that the police service nationally puts enormous importance on community race relations. It is not an academic exercise for us. Good relations within communities and between communities are absolutely vital for us. Essentially, if it goes wrong it is the most basic, what may seem trivial, disputes between neighbours, with conflicts in local areas; and at its most extreme example, clearly it can create huge disturbances within cities, as Bradford and other cities have experienced. It is work that we engage in tirelessly and put great importance on, which is often unrecognised and certainly unmeasured in the world of performance indicators and league tables. It is often not recognised and not prized. When we have tried to get recognition for it, we have tended to be labelled as being "typical pink liberal police chiefs". For us, it is not an academic exercise; it is not because we want to be popular or nice; it is because it is absolutely vital to one of our core roles, which is to maintain the Queen's peace. This issue is of great importance to us, and we have certainly been very struck that, since September 11 in particular, previous distinctions along racial lines essentially are no longer adequate. A lot of groups within society identify themselves along religious lines, and that is the core of their identity. Therefore, racial and national distinctions are less important. As I say, that has come over very, very strongly, in our dealings with Muslim, Hindu and Sikh groups, since 11 September. We recognise that and we recognise how important religious identity is to those groups; and it is fundamental to them; we realise how gravely they view any insult to that identity. Therefore, we recognise that the law should reflect that importance and the change in society essentially since September 11. We feel that there are gaps remaining. There remains a gap in the law, in relation to certain extremists and people who for various reasons wish to ferment hostility between communities, which does not cover incitement to hatred. There are clearly a lot of arguments around free speech, and comment, but we feel that the issue of hatred and people who may intend to create hostility and ill-feeling between communities, because of the consequences that can have in terms of keeping the Queen's peace, should be recognised within the law. It is not just a matter of harming people's sensibilities; it is a matter of actions that can have a grave effect on peace and tranquillity between communities.

  107. When we have been through these questions, I would like to come back to the practical gap, the situations that you have been confronted with, where there was not a criminal offence, where you would like to have been able to charge somebody if you had only been able to do so, and been provided with the legal framework to do it. We will come back to that later.
  (Mr Tucker) I was asked by the Association of Muslim Police to address the issues of blasphemy. The officers feel that that should be widened to include other faiths than Christianity.

  108. Has anybody given you any advice about how you define the objects of blasphemy, the objectives against which the blaspheming remarks are to be categorised?
  (Mr Tucker) No, in a word, they have not. I think the police service would probably concur with this, that there needs to be consistency around all faiths, preferably across all of the areas of prejudice where Parliament has legislated, so that the rules that apply to disability apply to gender, or to race-centred religion, where that is possible.

  109. Or, alternatively, if you repealed it so that it applied to nobody, there might be an alternative remedy of the sort that Mr Fahy indicated just now.
  (Mr Tucker) There are different issues around blasphemy and incitement, if that is the point you are making.
  (Mr Baines) My Lord Chairman, I would like to support the comments of my colleagues, particularly of Mr Fahy, about the issue of identity and how people identify themselves. People do identify themselves by their religious background, not simply their nationality or race. These are very significant issues for communities, and we need to be mindful of those and look at how we address some of the problems that occur.

Baroness Wilcox

  110. You say that people certainly since September 11 are identifying with their religious identity. Are you including Christian people in that, or are you defining the other groups, Muslim groups, et cetera?
  (Mr Baines) I think it is across the board. I do not think it is just an issue since September 11; I think it has always been the case. Over the last 12 months, certainly in the public arena, this issue has been highlighted. We have seen an increase in Islamaphobia in the UK. Some of these issues have always been there.

  111. That is against a religion, not for your own. I am thinking of the slightly apathetic way that most "Christians" in Britain, write "C of E" on their passport, and that is as far as it goes really. For you to tell me that the Christian people generally in Britain are identifying themselves with their religion, as opposed to identifying with their culture, I find a little difficult.
  (Mr Baines) I apologise. I realise we live in a very secular society at times, and I would not dream of suggesting that everybody living in our society particularly powerfully identifies with their religious identity. It is fair to say that it is very predominant amongst certain communities, particularly the Muslim community. It is an issue, and I am simply trying to say that.

  112. Yes, of course; it is just globally people in this country. I did not think it meant everybody.

Baroness Richardson of Calow

  113. All of you seem to have been majoring on the aspect of what we are dealing with, in terms of its prevention of bad feeling and support for community integration and peace. Is that primarily how you see the law? Is the law there as a deterrent rather than looking for ways of prosecuting?
  (Mr Fahy) We would see it as a deterrent and something that is symbolic. Clearly, good community relations often rely on people feeling that they are treated equally within society and under the law. At the moment, this would appear to be an anomaly, so it is an issue of prevention. Overall, we have seen the criminal law in this area as a blunt instrument, and if at all possible to be avoided. That is why we do huge amounts of work in trying to get communities together and deal with rumours, and to act as honest brokers. What is not always seen as a police role is very important because we would bear the consequence of those various communities and groups falling out with one another.

  114. Difficulties in enforcing it may not be the highest priority for you.
  (Mr Fahy) that is right.

Lord Bhatia

  115. Mr Fahy, you said there were gaps remaining in the law pertaining to religious hatred. From your previous experience, there is substantial unease in the Muslim communities.
  (Mr Fahy) Indeed.

  116. Do you find similar unease in other religious groups in relation to the same situation?
  (Mr Fahy) Clearly, the situations with the Jewish community and the Sikh community are largely covered by the Race Relations Act, so, clearly, most powerfully, yes, it is a matter for the Muslim community in our experience. It is with that particular community that we have had particular involvement since the events of September 11. I would not want to make it just a September 11 issue. What has also struck us is that whereas perhaps previously the issue of community relations often depended on events in this country, now it is very much affected by events abroad. It is not just September 11; it is different situations in the Middle East and the situation between India and Pakistan, which has been exercising us over recent months and which we are still concerned about. We can see its potential to promote ill feeling and conflict within this country.

  117. Do you think that some of the complaints that are coming to you from the Muslim community come with the feeling that they are not being treated equally with other faiths?
  (Mr Fahy) I think that is a very strong feeling, which has been expressed to us many, many times.

  118. If the Muslim community feels it is not being treated fairly or equally under the law, have the police made a representation to the Home Office or to your supervising department to point out the specific anomaly?
  (Mr Fahy) Yes, we have been involved in discussions with the Home Office and with some of the research that was carried out by the University of Derby. We have been involved in various meetings and discussions and pointed this out. We did support the changes that were there in the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which was eventually passed in the House of Lords. We are aware of this as an issue.

  119. It is an issue on the table to be dealt with.
  (Mr Fahy) Yes, indeed.

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