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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 347-359)




  347. Mr Thomson, can I thank you and your colleague for coming. I at least have had the benefit of reading what is really a skeleton argument, I think.

  (Mr Thomson) My Lord, yes.

  348. I hope my colleagues have been able to do so as well. There was, of course, your previous document which you sent in a little earlier, so we have got two very excellent documents from you. I think maybe at the time you did not have our specific list of questions.
  (Mr Thomson) Certainly with the first document I did not, my Lord, no.

  349. I leave you to handle this in whatever way you think fit, except that I am going to stop you reading out your skeleton argument, there just is not time. I have read it and I fully understand what you are saying. If you want to add any qualifications or any additions to it, if you would like to deal with our questions, can I put it in your hands to deal with it in whatever way you think fit.
  (Mr Thomson) I am grateful, my Lord. My Lord, I have prepared decently printed out copies of those two documents. The other ones had been sent by e-mail.

  350. As long as you do not expect us to read them while you are sitting there.
  (Mr Thomson) No, I do not expect you to but just when it comes to references it is always nicer to have something kinder on the eyes.

  351. Certainly.
  (Mr Thomson) My Lord, I propose really to refer to the submissions, not to read them out.

  352. You would like to refer to your submission that we got quite recently?
  (Mr Thomson) That is correct.

  353. There is no problem with this at all. I think it is dated 17 October.
  (Mr Thomson) My Lord, yes.

  354. I have read this with great interest so please do.
  (Mr Thomson) By way of opening, I realise that the Select Committee has a very clear focus and really you are looking at two particular possible offences but I think it is important, given the social context within which these changes have been contemplated, to bear in mind that there is a pressing need for a wide range of legislation both in the civil as well as the criminal sphere. As I sum up in my last paragraph of submissions, paragraph 44, changes have happened in the last 50 years even which mean that we have a very different society than we did in the time when the few laws that there are governing religious offences were framed. It is important to have a broad overview in order that the specific laws which are passed are part of an integrated and informed approach to really what amounts to fashioning a new society because suddenly we do have a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-faith society and it is important that in this society there are not first, second and third class citizens, that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. Therefore, for that reason alone I would ask you to read the larger document, the recommendations we made at the Association of Muslim Lawyers Conference on religious discrimination, because it has a broad overview which I hope will be helpful and within it there are specific references obviously to the offences that this Select Committee is considering.

  355. I am happy to say now I have had a chance to look at it and they are the two documents I have already read.
  (Mr Thomson) I am grateful, my Lord. My Lord, first of all, and this is a question which Lord Griffiths had already raised earlier on, which is what about the non-believer communities, how do you have a law which deals with religious minorities and with non-religious majorities or minorities? The point that I make there in my submissions is that really what this Select Committee is concerned with—

  356. Where?
  (Mr Thomson) Paragraphs three to six especially. In my respectful submission this Select Committee is concerned with the protection of religious minorities. We have the Article 9 right in the European Convention on Human Rights which has been incorporated by the Human Rights Act and I think this forms a good basis for whatever legislation is framed and promulgated in the future because any future legislation has to be in harmony with the Human Rights Act. This is one of the provisions of the Human Rights Act so it makes sense to have this in mind in the background. Article 9 is put in broad terms and it takes into account religious belief and also non-religious belief.

  357. It does.
  (Mr Thomson) In my respectful submission, the vast majority of, if you like, people who do not believe in God, who do not follow a particular religion, their freedom to have that position in life is already recognised by the Article 9 right. Also, in my respectful submission, they are not under any immediate threat. There is no-one like the BNP or the National Front going round saying "we have got to get these humanists, they do not believe in God". Neither, to my knowledge, is there any religious community putting out that kind of literature. The humanists are not under attack, the atheists are not under attack, but the small minority religions are and especially the Muslims. This is borne out by the research which has already been done by `Islamophobia, a Challenge for us all', by the Runnymede Trust, and also the two studies which have been done by the Home Office. What I am saying is not new, everybody is aware of this. Obviously in this multi-faith society any law which takes into account the protection of religious minorities has to include Buddhists, for example, Sikhs, Hindus, as well as the mainstream religions which are already recognised as such which are obviously Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Therefore, in my respectful submission, this legislation should be aimed at protecting religious minorities, it should not be aimed at trying to protect everyone because most of the other groupings which are not religious are not under threat in the same way that the religious minorities are. Looking at Article 9 religious rights, I will say, rather than non-religious rights, the Government is under a duty to secure these rights. This is under the Convention. At the moment Article 9 gives you a freedom of religion, a freedom of belief, a freedom to put that into practice, but if those freedoms are unreasonably violated there is at the moment no legal remedy either in civil law or in criminal law.

  358. That is your paragraph 13 point, is it not?
  (Mr Thomson) Yes. Clearly this is something that has to be redressed and this is part of the scope of your remit. In Article 9(2) obviously there is a proviso that in protecting these rights, in securing these rights, due regard has to be paid to the rights of others, it cannot be a sort of monopolistic approach. Obviously one of the greatest and most precious rights that we have in England is freedom of speech and yet just as Article 9 recognises that there are limitations to the right to religious belief and the right to put that into practice, so also is there a limit on freedom of speech and, in my respectful submission, this appears when you begin to enter the realm of vilification. In my submissions I have made a distinction between reasoned scholarly criticism, sincere theological debate and lighthearted humour. These should be permitted. But then things begin to get more serious. At the lower end of vilification, if you are putting it on a scale of one to ten, at scale one there is nothing the law can do about it. I can say something derogatory about any of the religions and it is not enough to warrant the law stepping in but at a certain point it is necessary that the law steps in. In paragraph 13 of my submissions I say that "Vilification should rightly be regulated by civil law when it causes real harm and hardship", for example if someone loses their job because they are a Muslim. Post 11 September there are examples of people who have got sacked and they have said, "We don't want any of your kind around any more", even though that person personally was repulsed and shocked by what happened on that date and would never subscribe to it or support it. Then also we come to the realm of criminal law and, therefore, we are coming now to the focus that the Select Committee has. In my respectful submission, when we get to the degree of vilification where blasphemy occurs this is where the criminal law has to step in. This is the first degree where it becomes a concern of criminal law. The next degree is the—

  359. I have got your full text very much in mind.
  (Mr Thomson) Yes. The next degree is the incitement to religious hatred. The next degree is the incitement to the commission of religiously aggravated offences. The next and final step is the actual commission of those offences. If you like, this is the first line of defence, blasphemy, and for this reason I think the law should be retained but it should be expanded to include protection to all what I call the bona fide religions and their followers. As Sarah Joseph very eloquently made the point, it is not just the people who follow the religion but it is the religion itself which has to be protected. However much I may disagree with some aspects of the Christian faith or the Jewish faith at the same time there has to be an element of respect which I owe to people and I have to say, "You are free to believe what you want. You are free to worship God as you wish. On the Last Day we are going to be judged by God, not by each other. He will judge you, He will judge me. You have your actions, I have my actions. I am not going to vilify you in my life because I do not think it is going to do me any good either in this life or in the next". This would be my reasonable and reasoned approach.

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