Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-296)|
WEDNESDAY 24 JULY 2002
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
(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 todayI 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 blasphemythat is difficultor
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.
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
(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.
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 stopthis has
not been brought up so far, and it should be at some pointreligious
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,
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 difficultiesthe
second point which Lord Avebury and others have made and the Bishop
referred tothe 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 otherand I think that is the
practical and realistic alternativethen 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 1996and 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 sothe 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
(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
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
(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.