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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-459)

WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002

DR DON HORROCKS, BISHOP WAYNE MALCOLM AND MR GRANT MASOM

  440. Perhaps it would be possible for you to let the clerk have a note of it.
  (Dr Horrocks) Possibly. But there is an issue there. The actual work involved wishes to keep going and it does not wish to make a public scandal about it. This again is one of the problems: they do not wish it to go into the public arena but it is, nevertheless, a real effect. I was visiting it only a few months ago.

  441. Could we ask more generally about the position of trusts which are of a specifically religious character. One would imagine that if local authorities were asking a trust to appoint somebody from a religious denomination which was inappropriate, that that would have come to wider public attention. We certainly, so far as I am aware, have not had any other evidence on the matter.
  (Dr Horrocks) There was the widely publicised case of the Christian prison work which was almost closed down recently because of its distinctly Christian approach. That was widely publicised. That is in the public domain and the Home Office and the prison service were directly involved in that.

  442. You are referring to the Kairos project. It was not closed down because of its specifically Christian approach, although the prison service did decide—and you may consider this to be wrong—that they would not entertain applications for offending behaviour programmes which were from any religious group whatsoever unless they were financed by the group concerned. In the case of Kairos they were re-introduced in the two prisons, The Verne and Leyhill, I think, when they agreed to assume the burden of paying for the people involved. So the prison service attitude, correct me if I am wrong, is that first of all they need to know what works. In other words, in offending behaviour programmes there has to be some guarantee that there is an improvement in the recidivism statistics arising from the work done by these outside groups and, secondly, that there is an improvement in behaviour of the inmates concerned during the period when they are under the supervision of the programme. Those are the two criteria which are applied rather than whether a particular denomination comes within the approval of the prison system. They are not discriminating in any way in favour or against any particular group. Is that not so?
  (Dr Horrocks) I do not want to speak for any particular group this morning, but I can assure you that there would be a different way of seeing that. But I am not here to speak for particular groups.

  Chairman: I think that is rather a long way away from religious offences.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  443. I would just like to pick up on that last point. I have much sympathy with what you say about this tacit discrimination and hear about it. This is not the context in which to be specific but I do know that it goes on. It is as if Christians in the past had privileges supposedly and now they have to be treated in a negative way in certain situations. My problem is that this is one thing; religious hatred is another. What this Committee is trying to do—and there is no pre-arranged agenda—is to define what religious hatred is and then to define the incitement of it. Incidentally, if I can just add, on this issue of transsexualism, there is no way in which parliament could force, for example, the Church of England to re-write the marriage service—if I may just cut lots of corners there. There is no way the European Court of Human Rights could force Christian churches to redefine their own internal and, in the case of the Church of England, rather open but internal rules. That is a kind of reassurance. It is not strictly relevant to the Committee but I think it is important for me to make that point. But I want to go back to the question which I think is occupying other people's minds around this table, which is how can you help us—because this is why you are here—to define what religious hatred is and how can you help us to define what incitement is. That is fundamentally what this mixed bag of people, of different beliefs and backgrounds, is trying to wrestle with.
  (Dr Horrocks) I understand the question.

Chairman

  444. We did ask you on paper to deal with any issues arising from religious discrimination and I think you have answered that. It would be very helpful to hear from you and your colleagues about religious hatred because that is a very difficult matter to get one's head around.
  (Dr Horrocks) Yes, it is. Perhaps I should ask my colleagues if they would like to come in.

  Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach: Are we going to tackle blasphemy first, or not?

Chairman

  445. We are trying to answer question 1 really. If we could ask you the question on blasphemy, because you did say that you were quite clear that you did not want it abolished, and then ask you to move to religious hatred.
  (Dr Horrocks) On the question of blasphemy, the big question in my mind, and I suspect in the minds of my colleagues—although they may not be as aware of the legal background as I am—is where this definition has come from that is in front of us. Certainly it is not a definition that we have come across before or recognise at all. I would like to throw a question back to the Committee, asking them: Where has this definition come from and why are we not going by the definition, with which I thought everybody agreed, which was reinforced by Lord Scarman in the Gay News case?

  446. What is there about this definition that you feel is different?
  (Dr Horrocks) It omits probably the most important part as far as ourselves and the Christian world is concerned and the Evangelical Alliance in particular; namely, that it appears to suggest that it is just the formularies of the Church of England that are affected here, as if this is some kind of narrow sectarian question when in fact, as Lord Scarman said, blasphemy or the publication of blasphemy is "anything that contains contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible or the formularies of the Church of England as by law established." I do not see any mention of God, Jesus Christ and the Bible here, which are the fundamentals of the Christian faith, and the suggestion that it is simply something about the doctrines of the Church of England that one can offend by blasphemy. Certainly, as a non-conformist, I have quite strong views on that and I suspect that my colleagues may have as well. I have a Baptist on my right and I have a black Pentecostal on my left, and I would leave them to comment.

  Chairman: This is the definition given by our legal expert of what the law actually covers. As I understand it from all the legal advice we have had, the law of blasphemy does only protect the Church of England. But I am not a lawyer and there are other much cleverer people around the table.

  Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach: I have gone back to read the initial paper we had. I am not a lawyer, let me make that comment. While originally the law of blasphemy protected the Crown, I sense that practice since then is slightly different and I am not sure whether I could say, hand on heart, that actually the law today simply defends the Church of England. I think that is a legal interpretation and my own conclusion is that the definition of the law of blasphemy is of necessity arbitrary. There are a number of definitions and, in terms of what was used last in the High Court, I think what is being stated here may be actually correct. That is just my personal view as a member of the Committee; other members of the Committee may share different views, but I certainly think this is something which we should explore because I do think that the people who have given evidence to us have actually given evidence on a different definition of blasphemy from the one which we as a committee have been using.

  Chairman: That is very much an internal comment, so perhaps we will not ask you to comment on that.

  Baroness Massey of Darwen: I am not a lawyer. Could I just check this out with someone who is a lawyer. I thought that the blasphemy issue in all circumstances only relates to the Church of England.

Lord Grabiner

  447. That is my understanding. I think the problem is driven partly by the fact that this is a common law offence, not a statutory offence. I think the reason for this definition is that it has been formulated with a view to try to state it in modern language and to try where possible to rid it of ambiguity or ancient terminology. Your complaint is that it does not achieve accuracy.
  (Dr Horrocks) I would have to say that if God, Jesus Christ and the Bible are ancient terminology to be got rid of, we would be pretty upset.

  Lord Grabiner: No. I perhaps did not express myself sufficiently clearly. It would be perfectly possible to have a definition that went to several paragraphs and I think that the endeavour was to try to reduce it to some proposition which was, broadly speaking, acceptable as an accurate definition of an offence, of a criminal offence—we have to be very precise about it. But if there are specific criticisms—and you have certainly indicated them—I am sure we will take account of what you have said.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

  448. Can I come back on that, because you said right at the beginning that you would recommend retention of the blasphemy law but there seems to be a contradiction here, that you have problems with the law because it does not cover enough of what you want it to cover. Is that correct?
  (Bishop Wayne Malcolm) Can I comment on this. Obviously my background is not as a legal expert but there seems to be a difference between the legal interpretation of the law and what I would probably call the way the public perceives the law.

Chairman

  449. That has become very apparent to us.
  (Bishop Wayne Malcolm) To me, representing a section of the public, being our Pentecostal churches, we see it as stating that it is wrong or illegal to insult our faith or deliberately to attempt to outrage people of faith. We do not see it as it is protecting the Church of England; we see it as making it wrong to take any sacredly held belief and attempt to insult the people who hold that belief by ridiculing it. We do not see it as academically challenging someone's belief or philosophically challenging someone's belief, but really publications or comedy or art that is intended to outrage the people who hold those beliefs to be precious and dear. To us, the reason why we would not want to see the law abolished is because we believe that that would send out the opposite message that it is now okay to do so. We feel that artists, comedians, the media and almost anyone would initially just use that opportunity, and there would become a wave of, Christians fundamentally would feel, anti-Christian literature—you know, on and on. We feel that that would be wrong, that that is the wrong message. Where I pastor there is also quite an Islamic community, and I would like to talk about some of that a bit later on, but we do not feel that anyone would be discussing removing a law that might have the effect of sending a wave of anti-Islamic feeling, or blasphemous statements that would outrage the Islamic community. We do not feel that anyone would even consider removing that law, even if it were ancient, even if it were not in force for many years. We do not think anyone would consider removing it because we think, as far as our non-legal position, that it would be reacted to violently. Therefore, our feeling is that in some way we are perhaps being penalised for being non-violent, that, because we are non-violent in how we deal with blasphemy as a rule, it is now being considered whether we should abolish this law, but we do not think anyone would be considering abolishing a law that might have the effect of outraging the Islamic community. Whatever its legal interpretation, we feel that there is a collective perception of the law as making it wrong to take a person's sacredly held beliefs and deliberately try to insult them or outrage them.

  450. Can I be clear, you are saying that you feel that not only Christians believe this provides protection for them but people of other faiths also.
  (Bishop Wayne Malcolm) Yes, we think that people of other faiths, as a rule, think it is illegal to blaspheme, that there is some legal recourse if you get up and start speaking, based on the existence of a law of blasphemy.

  451. That is not the question I asked. Do you feel that people of other faiths also feel that they are protected from people outraging their religious beliefs in speech or action? Do you think that Muslims and Sikhs and Jews also feel protected by the law of blasphemy?
  (Dr Horrocks) Two chief rabbis certainly do and have stated that fact.

Lord Grabiner

  452. Where is that to be found?
  (Dr Horrocks) I have certainly read the former Chief Rabbi Jacobovits, who felt that, although it was understood that the Christian religion was protected by the blasphemy law, he saw it as a kind of umbrella protection that was so much part of society that other faiths also came under its umbrella protection and it was for the good of society as a whole, and he stated quite clearly that he felt that the Jews did not need to seek any special protection for themselves.

Lord Bhatia

  453. Are you aware that when the Satanic Verses was published there was a case filed in the court by a Muslim. It was turned down because it was said very clearly, as far as I can recall, that it did not protect anybody else except the Christian faith. I am not sure whether it was only Christian or Anglican or other churches, but the case was turned down on that basis. Are you aware of that?
  (Dr Horrocks) Yes.

  454. There is a contradiction in what you are saying.
  (Dr Horrocks) No, what I am saying is that if that had been a book that had been aimed at the Christian faith then it would not have even come to court. The Christian tradition is much more open to intellectual argument and, indeed, to gratuitous comment in a kind of semi-academic environment, whereas there is a much lower threshold of tolerance in the Muslim world.

  455. In terms of the law—and let us just stick with the law—there is a blasphemy law. If a book was written similar to the Satanic Verses talking about the Christian religion, it appears to me, from the ruling that was given by the court, that if a Christian chose to take it to the court it would not be dealt with on the same basis as if a Muslim took Satanic Verses to the court. That is the difference I just wanted to point out to you.
  (Dr Horrocks) In response, if I might, I do not deny that there could be a perceived discrimination there, but in practice I think that it does not happen. And that is our view.

Lord Grabiner

  456. So you do not think there should be something equivalent of blasphemy for other religious groups. I thought you said you did.
  (Dr Horrocks) We are not in favour of extending the blasphemy law to other religious groups.

  457. At all?
  (Dr Horrocks) At all.

  458. Your position is that you simply want to retain the blasphemy law, period.
  (Dr Horrocks) Yes.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  459. Do you want to have a law on religious hatred? The trouble with the blasphemy law is it is from another age. It has the wrong title or shorthand—hence our mail bags—and it only protects the Church of England. The dilemma with which we are faced around this table—and no minds have been made up about this and we have not talked together about it—is: Do we leave it as it is, quaint benevolence, and, in the way which is perceived by some leaders of other faiths, providing an umbrella under which we can shelter, or do we say this is not actually working, it is not real, we need to move on to something else which is more focused or more specific? That is the dilemma we are in and no mind has been made up.
  (Mr Masom) I think I would endorse what my friend has said. I think the challenge for you as a committee, if I may say so, is that there appears to be an existing blasphemy law which focuses on the Christian religion and there is not a blasphemy law which focuses on other faiths. To discuss what you might have if you had a blank sheet of paper and were starting from square one, I think, is a different issue from considering the message it sends if you look at removing the provision that is there already. Certainly in terms of the discussion on whether this protects the Church of England or whether it protects the wider Christian community, I am not an expert, as has been made clear, but certainly I would be far happier with the quote from Lord Scarman that my colleague read to you earlier. But, regardless of that, I think the historic precepts of the Church of England are broadly in line with other mainstream Christian faiths, so from that point of view I think it is unlikely that something that would offend somebody in the Church of England would not offend somebody in the Baptist communion and vice versa. But my concern, as a lay member, would be the very strong message it would send if you did seek to repeal or modify it in any significant way and I think it would create open season, quite frankly, for a certain section of particularly the media and entertainment community that all bets were off in terms of this now being an acceptable target. That may be, of course, an unfair and unreasonable fear but I think it is a fear that would be quite widely held.


 
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