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

Supplementary Memorandum from the National Secular Society


  1.  The Executive Director of the Society and Dr David Nash gave evidence at the Committee's hearing on 18 July 2002. We made our main written submission on 16 October. The following written evidence on the Society's behalf is also submitted to cover some additional matters, partly as a result of more recent events, and also to draw these various strands together to reach some conclusions.


  2.  We hope that the detailed evidence we provided, as requested, on the Indian Criminal Code—from both historical and current perspectives—served to demonstrate to the members of the Select Committee what we continue to see as the total unsuitability of taking such a route.

  3.  We would like to emphasise that any introduction of the relevant provisions of the Indian Legal Code into this country would amount in essence to an extension of the blasphemy law. The deepest concerns which we raised about the "Indian Legal Code" would apply mutates mutandis to any such extension.


  4.  When we gave evidence in person we made it clear that we considered that extension would stifle freedom of speech and expression, and is totally impractical. We drew the Committee's attention to the Law Commission's review in 1985. This repeated earlier conclusions, but in much more closely-argued detail, that extending the law would be unwise, unworkable (for example in the definition of religion and precisely how this is to be addressed) and counter productive. The difficulties were simply thought to be insuperable, not least because any such law would lack legal certainty. We are adamant that such an extension, with its chilling effect, would prove to be unsustainable and unacceptable to all but the most bigoted in a modern multi-cultural and democratic society. We also suspect that any extension would not survive a Human Rights challenge.


  5.  We are aware that the churches wish to retain this archaic law, but we have been unable to find any convincing evidence that it is needed. The number of cases shown by the statistics is minute, and it seems that most if not all these (whether of criminal damage or sexual offences) could have been—or in many cases were—brought under other statutes. On the other hand, the penalties are unreasonably harsh, especially given the cases can be heard in magistrates courts. This law must be near unique in having been lampooned by a stipendiary magistrate in awarding £18.60 (the year of the Act) in the last high profile case. Surely it is better to repeal the law than allow it to fall further into disrepute. Any protection thought necessary for ceremonies such as funerals could easily be dealt with as an amendment to the Meetings Act.


  6.  We expressed deep concern about Section 39 at the hearing, but at that stage there had been no prosecutions under it. We now have experience of one prosecution and one complaint which may lead to a case being brought. We only bring them to your attention because, from this admittedly small amount of evidence, a disturbing pattern seems to be emerging. This is that, whether accidentally or deliberately, a perception is emerging that, in the area of religious offences, those of minority religions are being given preferential treatment. If the perception gains public credence that one section of the population is treated more leniently by the authorities and others less so (as was the case made in several newspapers over the Exeter case referred to below) then this will harm community relations and, ultimately, the justice system.

  7.  The Clerk to the Committee has been furnished with details about the case in question, which was in Exeter. Several newspaper reports suggest that a mutual exchange of serious insults between a Muslim and a non-Muslim resulted in the latter being charged but not the former, and that a less serious charge proposed by the police was escalated to Section 39 by the prosecuting authorities, but still no charge at all was made against the other man.

  8.  Much of the pressure to introduce new laws stems from the concerns of the Muslim community, or from others claiming that they are demanding new laws. While not underestimating the persistence of intolerant attitudes towards Muslims in this country, demands for a curtailment of free speech when it comes to criticising religion may be the result of Muslim groups having expectations of immense public deference towards religion that mirrors the cultural position even in many democratic Muslim countries, where authoritarian controls continue to exist on free speech when it comes to religious issues. The same degree of deference is not possible or acceptable given the different cultural traditions of the UK.

  9.  We also understand that a national course was held organised by the City of London Police in early November 2002 with the intention of encouraging the bringing of more prosecutions under this section. Clearly it is important that police and prosecuting authorities are trained in the implications of new law. We note however from evidence being brought to the Committee from the Home Office and police the constant emphasis on the need for more stringent laws in this area, it seemed to us without sufficient consideration being given to the problems this might cause. There was also an acknowledgement that this accorded with lobbying by Muslim groups. We are concerned that such evidence when taken together might suggest that undue official pressure is being exerted to bring in legislation and mount prosecutions under section 39 that would have the effect of muzzling freedom of expression. We fear that the present politically expedient policy of accommodating the demands of Muslim community to bring them on side for the prospective hostilities against Iraq may be leading to bad law, and could all too easily result in the uneven application of the law as it stands.

  10.  A further major concern is that attempts will be made to use the law to protect the religion itself, rather than just its adherents. We worry that such attempts could, perhaps through the operation of precedent, introduce protection to religion through the back door. To support our concern about this, we give details in Appendix 1 concerning a comedian about whom a complaint is outstanding under Section 39. We note with unease the reported reaction to the complaints by Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who welcomed the investigation: "Mike Reid must be taken to court and prosecuted because his remarks will cause widespread offence. The new law was designed to prevent this kind of attack on religious beliefs. (Our emphasis) Reid clearly has no regard for the law and is only interested in stirring up hatred." This seems to us to be a clear attempt by someone influential who would be expected to have a clear understanding of the law, to create a perception of it having a greater scope than it currently has, that expanded scope being much more (and unacceptably) restrictive to freedom of expression.

  11.  We consider Section 39 to be a serious infringement on freedom of expression and, even if it were not, that the maximum penalties are unreasonably harsh. We accept that this may be outside the Committee's formal remit and would ask the Committee to make a supplementary recommendation that Section 39 be repealed, but if it is to remain for the concerns we expressed to be highlighted and for the maximum sentence to be reduced to reasonable fines, rather than seven years' imprisonment.


  12.  We have sought hard to respond to the invitation to suggest a form of legislation to cover incitement to religious hatred. Despite consulting widely our view remains that adding "and religious" to the race relations provisions would result in a catastrophic restriction in freedom of expression in the new climate of intolerance referred to above, largely because of the unbridgeable difference in nature of race and religion. Even if that were not the case, the supposed safeguards in the form of attorney general's guidelines were wholly inadequate, even if they had been made statutory. As you know, we provided copious arguments against retention or the extension of blasphemy law, of the "Indian Penal Code" solution and Section 2 of the ECJA.

  13.  We bring to the Committee's attention in Appendix 2 the recent Scottish case where the existing Race Relations provisions have been used in the case of incitement to hatred concerning Muslims, as a high percentage of them were of Pakistan origin. We believe that such use of existing legislation should be the way forward, and is much less open to abuse of freedom of expression. We do acknowledge that there will be isolated cases, such as White/Caucasian converts to which this law would not apply. Nevertheless, most such cases are remote hypothetical possibilities rather than likely real life cases. The harm done by not extending the law would be slight compared to the dangers of doing so. We cannot over-emphasise the danger to the judicial system of allowing it to become enmeshed in emotive religious matters.

  14.  We proposed to the Committee that it recommends a wider use of existing legislation, and:

    (a)  Abolition of the common law offence of blasphemous libel.

    (b)  Repeal of ECJA, Section 2

    (c)  No additional legislation in this area, but that the Select Committee also states clearly that it lists the options it has considered and, broadly, why it has rejected them. If it does not include this last stage, it would leave it open to others to seek to impose some of these faux solutions without learning of the benefit of the deliberations that the Committee has undertaken.

11 December 2002



  Last year when David Blunkett was trying to get the incitement to religious hatred laws through parliament, the comedian Rowan Atkinson wrote to The Times in protest, saying that if it were enacted, comedians wouldn't be able to make fun of or satirise religion.

  His fears were dismissed as exaggerated. But now they seem strangely prescient, as stand-up comic Mike Reid is investigated by the police under Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act, which outlaws "religiously aggravated insult".

  Mr Reid, best known for playing a part in Eastenders, was doing his stand-up routine in the Central Theatre in Chatham, Kent, when a member of the audience, Helen Kirrane, 23, took exception to remarks he made about Muslims being told to bungee jump without strings and working as strippers.

  Ms Kirrane said she reported the matter to the police "because he shouldn't be allowed to get away with it and must be made an example of. The police said they would take it seriously."

  The police in Kent confirmed that they had received a complaint and that they were investigating.

  Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, welcomed the investigation. "Mike Reid must be taken to court and prosecuted because his remarks will cause widespread offence. The new law was designed to prevent this kind of attack on religious beliefs. Reid clearly has no regard for the law and is only interested in stirring up hatred."

  A Home Office spokeman said: "To be prosecuted, a perpetrator must use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to stir up hatred against a group of people because of their religious belief."

  Tony Lewis, who has been Mike Reid's agent for 32 years, said: "I've never heard anything so ridiculous or petty. The woman who made this complaint is clearly out for her 15 minutes of fame—good luck to her. Those jokes are funny. I've never heard him make a racist one. I am aware of the new religious hatred law and if the police think he has broken it, they will have no choice but to prosecute. We don't care."

  Perhaps Mr Lewis is unaware that if convicted, Mike Reid could face seven years in jail.

  Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said: "We hold no brief for racists, and we haven't heard Mike Reid's act. But we are alarmed that Iqbal Sacranie thinks the law is there to protect his religious beliefs. If he imagines that people should get seven years for criticising or poking fun at Islam, then we worry that eventually someone in the judiciary might agree with him."


  A BNP activist has been jailed for four months for posting thousands of racist leaflets around the Muslim community in Glasgow.

  David Wilson, 31, a father of two, was sentenced after being found guilty of inciting racial hatred last year. He posted the leaflets through as many as 4,000 doors in the Pollokshields area of the city, urging residents to stop "militant Muslims".

  Yesterday, security was stepped up as Wilson appeared at Glasgow Sheriff Court for sentencing amid fears of clashes between anti-nazi protesters and BNP activists. Sheriff Linda Ruxton told Wilson:

    "You have been convicted of distributing written material which was threatening, abusive and insulting, whereby you intended to stir up racial tensions in Pollokshields.

    "Such conduct threatens to destabilise a community and threatens to undermine all the efforts by the community to enjoy good racial relations.

    "A sentence of imprisonment is only appropriate given the nature of the offence.

    "It should also serve as a strong deterrent to others, making clear that such behaviour strikes at the heart of community life and will not be tolerated."

  Sherriff Ruxton then jailed him for four months.

  Afterwards, the outcome was widely welcomed by anti-racism protesters in Scotland.

  At an earlier hearing, Wilson, of Dalmuir, Glasgow, became the first person north of the Border to be convicted of the offence of inciting racial hatred after it was proved he targeted one particular nationality with the racist literature.

  90% of Muslims in the Pollokshields area come from Pakistan.

  The court was told Wilson had joined other BNP members posting the letters to the homes of both blacks and whites in July last year.

  Their campaign group—Families Against Immigrant Racisms—alleged white people were being subjected to a series of violent attacks on the south side of the city.

  About 100 police officers were drafted in with another 20 in the courtroom as Wilson was led in.

  Kenneth Waddell, defending, told the court his client had already suffered as the offence had destroyed his marriage. It is also believed he will more than likely now be sacked from his £20,000 a year job as an engineer at BAE Systems, in the city.

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