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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-392)



  380. The criminal law that you are dealing with on your second page, at the bottom of the tree, as it were, you put blasphemy.
  (Mr Thomson) Yes.

  381. Climbing up on to the next branch you have got two related offences, incitement to religious hatred and incitement to the commission of religiously aggravated offences. What is the difference between those?
  (Mr Thomson) My Lord, at the lower level of the incitement to religious hatred you can just put out hate literature but you do not actually tell people to spit on Muslim women or tear their hijab off or, as happened in Finsbury Park after 11 September, stab her to death, but by putting out the hate literature someone who is not balanced may be tipped over the edge to actually do something. This has happened. There are many instances, especially post 11 September, where ordinary Muslims in the street, law-abiding Muslims, Muslims who were horrified by what happened on 11 September, have been attacked and as Sarah Joseph has already pointed out, and Ifath Nawaz is here specifically to answer any questions on how women are affected, if you are immediately recognisable as a Muslim woman you are more open to attack. Dressed as I am today people might not recognise me as a Muslim, except perhaps by my beard, but any lady in hijab is usually recognisable as a Muslim walking down the street. There are examples both in England and America where Sikhs have been attacked because they were wearing a turban and also other groupings who were mistaken for Muslims.

  382. I am trying to be precise here. I think we are very well aware that section 39 deals with actual attack.
  (Mr Thomson) Yes.

  383. And it deals with harassment. Even if the harassment does not lead to any physical attack it could lead to psychological effect.
  (Mr Thomson) It deals with threats.

  384. This is your final stage. What I am interested in is the two intermediate stages, the incitement to religious hatred and the incitement to commission of aggravated offences. What is the difference?
  (Mr Thomson) My Lord, if we take, for example, this leaflet by the Jewish Defence League, as I just said if it is given to a Muslim it is a direct threat. "Stop opposing us or the same as has happened to Lebanon will be visited on your mosques, your families, your leaders . . . Be warned Muslims your lives are ours like the sheep to the butcher . . . Your parents, wives and children are legitimate targets as are your homes, places of work, restaurants and mosques." These are very direct threats. If you look at the picture on the other side it shows a man from Lebanon with his dead child who has probably been shot or killed in a bombing attack "A warning to the Muslim community that lives amongst us . . . A warning of the same to your families and leaders here", ie in England. If it is given to Muslims it is a threat but if it is given to members of the Jewish community that, I would say, is an incitement to commit a religiously aggravated offence.

  385. Are you going to be very upset if the two are run together? I think at the moment they are run together in clause 2 of Lord Avebury's Bill.
  (Mr Thomson) As we can see from the definitions that I have come up with, I have not made a third offence. I have said basically if you nip the incitement to religious hatred in the bud that would include obviously incitement to commit religiously aggravated offences. I think it would fall within that first offence so there is no need for two separate offences, I think that would be going over the top.

  386. What you are getting away from is tacking on "religiously" to the previously existing law which says "racially aggravated", you are getting away from that under the Public Order Acts and harassment.
  (Mr Thomson) I agree that as with the Section 39 offences it would be a great help to add "religiously" and "religion", as this brings in offences which otherwise might not be brought in.

  387. What I am trying to get at is this: if you are trying to deal with incitement, are you suggesting that it should be done as the Government did in the clause in the Bill, as Lord Avebury has done in the clause in his Bill, by simply tacking on to the existing law on religious aggravation in criminal offences, in incitement cases, the racial aspect, religious aggravation?
  (Mr Thomson) Certainly I support that as an interim measure. As you already pointed out earlier this evening it is an easy way of dealing with it but it might be a bit facile. What I have sought to do is by drafting, as it were, a particular section that deals with both offences clearly and without just adding a word here or there, it sends a clear message, it is easily accessible, and in terms of informing the public and informing the police and prosecuting authorities it is immediately obvious what it is about. I think this has been touched on by my colleagues already, that there are instances where the law is in place but people are not actually aware of it.

  388. The steps that you would invite us to take are to get on to the statute book the religiously aggravated incitement offences now and then see whether in the slightly longer term something that takes the form of your paragraph 31 might be enacted so as to deal comprehensively with the definition that provides for blasphemy and incitement. Is that right?
  (Mr Thomson) My Lord, yes. It is almost like the difference between actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm. You often find in prosecutions that defendants are charged with both and as the evidence emerges it becomes clear which one it is and at that point the prosecution withdraws one of the charges on the indictment.

  389. Or the jury convicts on the lesser charge.
  (Mr Thomson) Yes.

  390. I think I am going to have to draw a line there. Is there anything else that you are really dying to say to us because I think we have got some domestic arrangements of our own before we finish? Do you think you have done justice to your argument, particularly if we promise that we will read the document very carefully?
  (Mr Thomson) Perhaps in closing I can say that as far as the questions on enforcement are concerned, I think the points I have made are very clear in the submissions and I do not really need to remake them. Similarly with places of worship, Section 2, I disagree slightly with my colleagues in that I do not recognise it as being that necessary to retain this offence but certainly there is no harm in keeping it on the books.

  391. It is being used.
  (Mr Thomson) In the situation of the pig's head that is dropped off in the middle of the night or whatever, it might be useful.

  392. In that case I thank you both very much indeed. If you have any further thoughts, provided they come fairly soon, please do not hesitate to send anything more to us that you may think of.
  (Mr Thomson) My Lord, I am very grateful to you and to your colleagues, thank you very much.

  Chairman: I wish there were more of my colleagues here but I am afraid we have chosen a bad afternoon. Perhaps I can say to all of you who have come, thank you very much for your attendance and your evidence and the help you have given to us. Fortunately this will be on the transcript so everybody can benefit from it even if there is a small audience here today. Thank you.

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