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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-250)



Bishop of Portsmouth

  240. That is even better, as far as I am concerned!
  (Mr Wood) I think it may mean some slight changes to the law, especially hatred akin to violence, but particularly that it should not be confined to religious groups or non religious groups but also should be quite open to everyone.


  241. I understand that.
  (Mr Pollock) Could I suggest, Chairman, the sort of way forward that we have begun to adumbrate in our own minds insofar as we have criticised, fairly comprehensively, the drafting of the Bill as it stands that the Home Office has produced? We think that it might be possible to produce a stand-alone set of clauses modelled in terms of religion or belief as in Article 9 of the European Convention which might focus on the use of language or behaviour that, in the judgment of a reasonable person, was in all the circumstances likely to stir up hatred of a group of persons characterised by their religion or belief, or to inhibit the exercise of their rights under the Human Rights Act, in particular under Article 9 which is the freedom of religion or belief rule. There ought then to be a defence, we think, of justification which was suggested by your colleague, Lord Lucas, in the Second Reading debate. I think he talked about a defence on the grounds that the action taken by the accused was reasonable in all the circumstances. We would leave it to the lawyers to find a satisfactory way of framing that, but we do see the need to cover legitimate criticism of a religious group, whether it was enticement of children away from their families by the Children of God or another such cult, or the cover up of child abuse by their elders by the Jehovah's Witnesses or whatever. Such speech should never be penalised or run any risk of being penalised. We think if, in the end, the Parliamentary draftsmen say it is impossible to draft any such law, then we would prefer there not to be a law than that the present flawed draft should go forward. Our disappointment, and we realise that that would be as nothing compared with that of most of the Muslim community, would be significantly mitigated if the government pressed on rather faster with their laws against discrimination on religious grounds. They are already moving on in the area of employment and occupation as required by the European Directive, but that leaves open wide areas, in particular for example provision of services, where legislation could certainly be brought forward more rapidly.

  242. Would either of the two groups who are represented here be prepared to give us some indication of how a totally different approach might lead to a criminal offence which would be able to be prosecuted in the courts? I entirely accept that none of you are lawyers and it is a tough thing to ask, but if we are going to reject the easy analogy which has been adopted after the racial aggravation and now religious aggravation, I think we ought to consider whether there is another way of doing it and I wondered to what extent you could help us. Obviously you cannot do it now.
  (Mr Wood) I would be happy to seek to do that and I think perhaps it would be better if the two organisations did so, whether on the same document or not, separately.

  Chairman: Please do, and I know that Dr Nash has got, at any rate, legal friends who could help even if he is not himself a lawyer. I think we would be genuinely most grateful to you if you could help in this way.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

  243. We heard a way forward then which was a bit of new ground. Could we ask the National Secular Society if they in general agree with the drift of that new way forward?
  (Dr Nash) I would simply say that we have now been asked to look at what might be possible. I am not sure it would be valuable to comment at this stage.
  (Mr Wood) I would like to go away and think about it again, and submit something more considered.

  Chairman: There is no possible reason why you should not do that, and we would be very grateful if you would. The House rises for the summer recess fairly soon and we will not be going back to this until the autumn so there is quite a bit of time for you to do it, and I think that one of the things that comes out of the material that we have been sent is that the methodology that has been adopted, and Lord Avebury has only really reflected what was in the Home Office's Bill, is not necessarily the right way because of the nature of the thing that we are dealing with which is not necessarily the same as race, and if there is another route whereby we can deal with the mischief that I think you all agree does exist, then we would be extremely interested in seeing what thoughts you have about it.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  244. I wonder if I could just make a comment which is also a sort of question. I know that people will say, "Well, there are people who are Church of England who will do silly things and people in the Church of England who will do more thoughtful things", but in this whole debate I have before me the whole time the question of freedom and the right kind of freedom, and I know for example that, in the rhetoric about religious discrimination, the secularist—with a small `s'—agenda, basically people who are not faithful to the freedoms that you four, or certainly you two, would stand for, are using it to discriminate against some of the people that I stand for. For example, I know a person who was being interviewed for a job in a company and who was asked, "What conditions would you like?", and he said "I would like Good Friday and Christmas Day off" and the answer was, "I cannot guarantee that", and the question came back, "If I were a Muslim, Hindu or Jew or whatever, what would your response be?"—"Oh, that is different". In this whole debate I have to be aware of that kind of freedom as well and that makes this whole debate for me—and I suspect others around this table—even more complex. It is not as obvious as, shall we say, the broadsheet press would make it out to be.
  (Mr Wood) Were you suggesting that people would be less or more accommodating to Church of England than they would be for people of minority faith, just to be clear?

  245. Less.
  (Mr Wood) I suppose that is a function—I do not support it—of people not wishing to be discourteous to those from what are often minority races as well, but I want to bring an important point home here: I have done a huge amount of work personally on the Employment Directive, including in Brussels before it was ratified and here with the DTI before the consultation went out, and what is a recurring theme that I find very difficult is, in the strand of discrimination for religious purposes, the volume of opposition from religious groups saying, "Yes, we want this kind of legislation but, for goodness' sake, do not have it applied to us". That we find absolutely breathtaking and very upsetting indeed, so as the government is moving further towards faith-based welfare, where public funds are going to be used in employment of people in faith-based welfare, religious organisations are seeking not to be bound by discrimination laws and I think that is very sad.

  246. But that may reflect probably a basic disagreement which will be shared around this table about the post September 11th/post modern world: is it more religious or is it really religion becoming more and more something of the past? I suspect, and this is a comment dare I make, that this is going on nationally and it is part of why this Select Committee exists.


  247. Dr Nash, I am going to give you the last word on this but can I just, before I do so, say that we did ask this question about Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdictions Act, and I am assuming the British Humanist Association's paper is the answer you wish to give on that and you do not want to add anything, at any rate at the moment?
  (Mr Pollock) We do not.
  (Mr Wood) We substantially agree with it but you did ask about the internet. Unless I missed it, in your last question, did you refer to the internet specially, and has that been answered to your satisfaction?

  248. Not yet, but I think Dr Nash wanted to say something.
  (Dr Nash) I was going to say in response to this issue of why there are free speech concerns on this side of the table that I am very conscious in reading this legislation and listening to some of the arguments offered by yourselves around the table that there is a model here of people producing material that is liable to stir up religious hatred in a very active way and putting this to people who become the potential victims of this. Now, it is wholly right and proper that this Committee should be looking at this issue and seeking a remedy, but what we have to remember is that once such a remedy is on the statute book, then we have to ensure that there are sufficient safeguards to prevent motivated people from finding offence in material that is in our society at large, and if we look at the history of the blasphemy rules it is littered with individuals who have searched back through the cultural products of our age and previous ages to find material that they may well find offensive. My earnest hope is we do not make this mistake again.

  249. Mr Wood, there was something you wanted to add?
  (Mr Wood) Only about the internet.

  250. That is something we are very interested in.
  (Mr Wood) We think that it is a passive medium, and I wonder whether something quite simple like requiring people to press a button to say, "Yes, I acknowledge when I go past this point I may find something that I think is offensive" would be quite a neat way of doing it, and not so draconian that we would be pushing sites to go abroad to get round the law.
  (Dr Nash) It is also worth bearing in mind that the internet is for many people a source of information about religion, and we would have to be extremely careful that particular religious sects do not find a legal way of silencing or removing from the public domain nominal or factual information about themselves simply because they find it offensive or inconvenient. There are instances in the United States, for example, where a religious group has closed down an internet site because it was containing factual information about that religion, so we have to bear in mind that the internet is a source of information much as print culture is, and we would certainly not indict print culture per se for the message it carries.

  Chairman: I am going to draw this session of the Select Committee to a close because I made a promise that we would never go on for more than an hour and a half, and I do so by way of thanking all four of you very much indeed for the trouble you have taken in preparing the answers to our questions and supplementaries. You have given us a great deal to think about. I think you may possibly be going to offer us a little bit more when you have had a go at this possible criminal offence, or sketch the way in which you think it might possibly be formulated, because that will help us very much, but already you have done a great deal to contribute to this difficult debate and I would like to thank, on behalf of the Committee, all four of you very much indeed.

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