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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-296)



Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach

  280. Might it be argued that although, on the assumption that Lord Grabiner made, we could not find a way forward there are no real plans for the Church of England as a legal comment, de facto it is a sort of canopy which many other Christians, Roman Catholics, nonconformists, and so on, are very happy to see on the statute book because it provides an umbrella protection. Although if you were to start with a clean sheet of paper you certainly would not draw it up like this. Nevertheless, I think there are people from other Christian faiths that would see value in it.
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I would not refer to the submission of the Roman Catholic church because they can speak for themselves. We have certainly had close consultation with all of the different aspects of the Christian faiths in this country, including Methodists, and Roman Catholics, and the like. I think the position that we are trying to present in our submission is one that is as ecumenical as possible. We do not want to argue for a distinctive Church of England position irrespective of other denominations. We are well aware of taking the time to consult with other denominations to try and get as broad a brush approach as possible. I understand that Mr Mackley has received a submission from the Roman Catholic Church and that is broadly in favour of the position which we take. I do not know whether that is a public document yet or not.


  281. I wonder whether we could just go on with our list, these things all tend to be guided into each other. If we do not continue to have a crime of blasphemy or blasphemous libel applying to either the Church of England or anybody else what is remaining mischief after the passing of the 2001 Act that we now need to address? Is it people, groups of people, tenets, religious beliefs, what is it that we ought to be applying our minds to so as to prevent, as it were, vilification of other people's beliefs?

  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I think, my Lord Chairman, that one is fairly easily answered. I think there has been a major change since the Law Commission's final report in 1985. I think, undoubtedly, the climate has worsened between groups of people and there has been evidence. I was speaking to the wife of a chaplain of a university today—I will not say which one - and she said that her husband had been engaged in the last couple of terms in looking at literature that had been distributed on the campus which urged Muslim students to kill Jewish students and the Jewish community on that campus had replied with quite considerable annoyance and disturbance, and a breach of the peace was narrowly avoided. That is an actual example. I am moving on to question six to answer you in a way, that is an example of religious intolerance produced by groups of religious students against another. I think the evidence of the disturbances in cities in the North of England last year and continuing concern from particularly the Islamic faith, but I think others as well, shows that we cannot simply leave it without any protection for religious faith as such. The Law Commission, of course, in its final report said that they did not think that the blasphemy law if abolished should have any replacement because they argued that the political climate was such that it was not necessary. They then go on to say hypothetically that if that situation was to change we would have to think again. I think the whole point of our argument is that the situation has changed and therefore you need to think again.

  282. I think we accept that it has changed. The difficulty is this, I am not trying to get you into the detailed areas of criminal law, because that would be very unfair, but on the statute book now we have a certain amount of material which deals with racially aggravated offences, what we need to try and think about is whether there is still a gap. You have given us an example, and a very good example, is it possible to be even more particular about what is wrong with the law as it now stands and what ought to be added to it?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I think there are two points, the Bishop of Birmingham has certainly made the point in the debate, I think it was on January 30 on Lord Avebury's Bill, certainly at some point in the Lords recently, there are some religious groups which are not covered by racial legislation and therefore it is possible for people to incite hatred against others without necessarily an offence having been committed which would be aggravated by religion. That would be one point, I think that extension needs to be made.

  283. That has been made. That has been made, "religious" has been added to racial.

  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) In terms of an aggravated offence. The question we come back to is the point about incitement. Incitement to racial hatred is of course an offence but incitement to religious hatred is not.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

  284. I am not sure if I am pursuing the same line or if I am going back a bit, so forgive me, you seem reluctant to give up completely the law of blasphemy. If one extended the law of blasphemy to cover other religions would it not look something like a law about incitement to religious hatred anyway?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) Yes, it would.

  285. Where is the problem?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) We want one or the other. We either want the extension of the offence of blasphemy—that is difficult—or if that is not possible then a law about incitement to religious hatred would fill that gap. It does essentially come down to one or the other.

  286. They would be the same. I am not a lawyer, would they not be almost the same thing, where are the objections for getting rid of the law of blasphemy if it is going to be the same thing essentially?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) We have said that although we would prefer to extend the offence of blasphemy to other faiths if that is not possible let us go for the other. There is not a disagreement between us, it is a question of which one actually chooses.

Lord Bhatia

  287. I do not want to refer back to blasphemy, let us park that to one side. The Lord Chairman asked earlier on what other gaps there are in the law, and we come back to incitement, you gave two examples, the northern towns as well as the university campus. It seems to me that what you are saying is that if a group of people or an individual incites an individual or a group of people, let me give you an example of what happened in the northern towns, the BNP were publishing material, they were the people inciting against a particular faith. It seems to me that instead of inciting against Muslims, if they incited against Christians, the Anglican Church, even the Anglican Church is exposed imposed because there is no law to stop them inciting against the Anglican Church. Is that correct?
  (Mr Slack) They could be caught by the existing law of blasphemy. It could be that if there was violent conduct or abuse directed towards the subject then it is possible.

  288. It is people against faiths that we are talking about. If somebody choose to attack and incite against the Anglican Church you are talking about inciting against a faith, not against people. I do not think there is an existing law that covers that.
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) No. I think that is right.
  (Mr Slack) I am not clear which of the public order offences that would fall under, no.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  289. Can I make a comment, I wonder if that question is not actually partly showing that the law of blasphemy and its terms are couched in that of a bygone era and the problem is, do you tamper with that venerable law, do you abolish it or do you leave it alone when the real world of today is actually about religious hatred, which is much more specific, much more focused? Sorry to make another comment. Can you help us, that is the conundrum, going back to what I was saying earlier, that is what Lord Bhatia is suggesting.
  (Mr Slack) The essence of the present offence of blasphemy, as I understand it, is to do with being offensive to people's religious feeling, that is where the law of blasphemy stands at the moment and it has moved in its history throw several metamorphosis, starting in its origins out of a need to avoid insult to God almost and then moving to the perceived need to protect against the subversion of society. Finally to the protection of people's religious feelings. What the last questions have opened up is the fact that there are now perceptions that actually the focus of the criminal law should move away from giving of offence to people's religious opinions and beliefs to activity which whilst expressed by reference to those beliefs it is actually bringing with it the fracturing of the bonds that hold society together. That seems to me to be the simplistic language of the kind that is being used. That is, I think, a quite different justification of the law, essentially, and I think that is, perhaps, one of the reasons for feeling on offence which was cast round that kind of concept, I think to which more people are likely to be able to commit themselves and would be more likely to command public acceptance than one which remains focused on the protection of a certain kind of belief.

Lord Avebury

  290. We are not actually protecting people from offensive attacks on religion with the blasphemy law, are we, at present, because the terms in which the offence is defined, at any rate, according to the most recent case, is that the words have to be scurrilous, abusive or offensive and tend to vilify the Christian religion. Would you not agree that a great many things have been said about the objects of religious worship, God, Christ, etc, which are, indeed, very offensive and which, as has been said earlier, many people who write in to our Committee do not realise that they are not covered by the law. Therefore, would you not agree that we are not concerned here with protecting people's religious susceptibility but only the object of religion from these extremely intemperate and scurrilous attacks if, indeed, that law would work, as it did in the case of the Gay News offence?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I do not think there is any disagreement with what you are saying. In fact I think we do need to move to legislation that will effect where people are and find a way of stopping attacks on groups of religious people, which your proposed legislation would do. Also, of course, to stop—this has not been brought up so far, and it should be at some point—religious people from inciting attacks on other groups of religious people. We have skirted round this one, I do think that is important.

  291. We abandon the idea of protection and look at the protection of people belonging to a particular religion from incitement of hatred against them, which may made lead to events of violence against minority religions or even against the Church of England. It is theoretically possible, as in Northern Ireland, for somebody to incite hatred against the Church of England. It is theoretically possible, as in Northern Ireland, for somebody to incite hatred against the Church of England, or indeed any other church, under legislation which is very similar to the draft put before the House.
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I think that puts it very well, my Lord.

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach

  292. I am still slightly confused. Are you now saying that the Church of England has given up the position of the Leonard Report? I thought earlier you were saying you were in favour of it but it seems now from your answer to Lord Avebury that you are saying something which is, as far as I can see, that is 180 degrees different.
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) We are saying, my Lord, that if it were possible to deal with all the difficulties of implementation, then the Church of England's position has been to extend the Leonard Report to other faiths. If we did that, there would be great difficulties—the second point which Lord Avebury and others have made and the Bishop referred to—the blasphemy law does actually come from a different era and it would not serve the same function as a law to do with incitement of religious hatred. Our position would be and has been that we would like to extend it but it is very difficult. If we move to the other—and I think that is the practical and realistic alternative—then there will be other gains. There will be losses as well but there will be gains in being able to protect groups of people as they practise their religion from incitement to hatred. So it is a position where we shift because the world has moved on and because of the difficulties of extending the blasphemy offence to other faiths and other denominations. There will be losses in that but there are also gains, I think. It is clear where we are, at least I hope it is clear.


  293. Could I ask you now to deal with two matters of fact which might be a change for you. First of all, have you got anything to say about the effect of the Internet in this field? Secondly, it has been put to us in some of the correspondence that members of Christian faiths are just as susceptible to the sort of vilification and abuse that is being complained about by others. Have you got examples of either of those?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I think, my Lord Chairman, the answer is straightforward, no, we have not, as far as I am aware.

  294. We have dealt with Section 39 of the 2001 Act but what about the matter touched on a moment ago, the parallel legislation but not the same in Northern Ireland; is there anything to learn from the Northern Ireland Order?
  (Mr Slack) My Lord, as I understand it, difficulties certainly have been identified in the past in relation to the corresponding provisions in the Northern Ireland Order. I am not personally aware of any particular difficulties having been identified recently, but the ones which were identified originally, as I understand it, were the necessity to prove that the conduct or words in question were intended to stir up hatred, the necessity to prove the intention to do so, and the requirement that the hatred be directed towards a section of the public rather than a particular church or individual or whatever. I suppose it is possible that, in principle, similar difficulties could arise in connection with the proposed new provisions in the Religious Offences Bill, but I would suggest that we ought to be wary about concluding that the same difficulties would necessarily arise in the context of this country. In a paper written for the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in 1996—and I am not sure whether it is referred to in the bibliography attached to the very helpful explanatory papers in connection with the Religious Offences Bill and if it is not available to you I am sure we could make it so—the Northern Ireland context was different in five ways from other societies, five ways which bore really quite critically on the operation of these provisions in practice. They were the length of time people had been inciting each other to religious hatred. The fact was that religion and politics were intertwined there in a way which really was not true in many other societies. That those inciting religious hatred would not generally try to convert people to their cause but rather to encourage the hatred that already existed amongst their supporters. It was not just a problem of a member of a majority religion inciting racial hatred against members of the minority, the reverse was also common and the fact that was a general tolerance by many ordinary people of violent language in public discourse, including the use of fighting talk, which was not intended to be acted upon but was merely rhetoric. In view of those considerations the paper suggested that it was hard effectively to enforce a law which sought to criminalise incitement to religious hatred. It would be difficult, amongst other things, to show that the words used were likely to stir up racial hatred or arouse fear and that was the intention of the accused. Furthermore, such law would always tend to be the subject of criticism on the grounds of freedom of speech. That analysis seems to me to be persuasive and I personally would be quite wary assuming that any problems which had been encountered in forcing legislation of that kind in Northern Ireland would necessarily be replicated in what I hope and believe are very different conditions of our society here.

  295. I think without drawing you into the details of criminal law we are already into an alternative on intent which would have to be proved or alternatively an objective, the likelihood of hatred being incited. I do not know whether you have any comment on that, but that is the way it seems to have been going. If the prosecution cannot prove the intent they may have to go over to the likelihood and then the judgment has to be applied, whether that was just fighting talk or whether it was really inciting racial hatred.
  (Mr Slack) I can understand there could well be difficulties in that connection my Lord Chairman, but I imagine it would be desirable to maintain than mens rea requirement from a number of points of view. Many of those in religious communities would be concerned if there were a lower level of intention, if a lower level of intention sufficed for the offence to be committed, not least because of the potential impact that could have on those who were seeking to engage in genuine evangelistic activity and genuine public discourse without serious matters of religious belief.

  296. That is I think the other side of this coin. We have to be very careful to continue to allow freedom of expression, even if it does take a fairly fearsome form, so long as it does not lead to incitement to hatred or to public order offences or something of that sort. Would you agree with that?
  (Mr Slack) Yes, I would.

  Chairman: I think having taken 11 minutes off to vote, according to the rules to which I operate we now better draw this session to a close. I do not want to do that without thanking both of you very much indeed for the trouble you have taken to think about the questions and to give us our answers as we fired them at you. We will look very carefully at the transcript of this. The transcript will probably be published so you might like to look at it carefully too. Thank you very much, indeed, for what you have been able to tell us.

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