Select Committee on Selection Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from The Hindu Council UK

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  The Hindu Council UK is an apex body supported by over 300 Hindu organisations and temples in the UK and seeks to integrate Hindus socially, culturally, economically and politically with British society, whilst maintaining the Hindu identity. The Hindu Council UK has actively worked with over 1 million British Hindus in various consultation exercises, notably on the issue of religious discrimination, for which a document (Proposed changes to the legislative framework for religious discrimination) was submitted to the Department of Trade and Industry in January 2002. This submission to the House of Lords draws upon consultation with community leaders and legal experts from Britain and covers only the specific questions submitted by the Select Committee on Religious Offences through its letter dated 19 November 2002.

  1.2  Some of the key Principles of Hinduism that are conducive to the promotion of peace and co-existence in society are inclusiveness, tolerance, non-violence and respect for other religions.

2.  SCOPE OF INQUIRY

  2.1  We welcome the Inquiry being conducted by the Select Committee and the two strands being considered regarding the current blasphemy law and the potential introduction of a new offence of inciting religious hatred. Such an inquiry is long overdue.

  2.2  We believe that the opportunity should also be taken to undertake a comprehensive review of all civil and criminal laws on religious freedom to evaluate whether they are in line with the UK's obligations on international law and whether they reflect both changes in the composition of British society and modern attitudes, particularly on diversity. Such a review should also include but not be limited to the following:

    (a)  The historical context for such legislation and how it has changed,

    (b)  What level of awareness exists about the existing provisions on religious freedom amongst the affected minority communities as well as those who administer and apply these laws,

    (c)  How effective the existing provisions are in tackling religious hatred,

    (d)  How often the existing provisions have been utilised and with what impact.

  2.3  It will, of course, not be possible to conduct such a comprehensive review within the timescales of the Select Committee's deliberations. Nevertheless, this review is one that should be undertaken urgently to avoid continuation of the piecemeal and potentially inconsistent approach that has characterised the legislative approach so far. We hope that the Select Committee will give consideration to recommending that such a review should be conducted as a matter of urgency.

  2.4  We also believe that the historical context of existing legislation, the level of awareness of those administering the laws as well as the effectiveness of that legislation in operation are key factors which the Select Committee should consider when making any recommendations about the extension of existing laws to cover religion or other Christian groups or other faiths.

  2.5  We also believe that while examining issues under "religious offences" particularly with reference to offences arising out of religious discrimination, the following should be considered:

  2.5.1  The definition of "religion" is not clear, and appropriate consideration and consultation would be required to identify the parameters within which religious belief (or the lack of it) can be defined or left undefined.

  2.5.2  Offences arising from religious discrimination in work places will have a right of redress from December 2003, when the European Union Directive's Article 14 will be enforced in Britain. This however still leaves a major flaw in the legislation, whereby religious discrimination encountered in education, training, goods and services, housing and other areas cannot be redressed by legislative means.

3.  BLASPHEMY

  3.1  The fundamental point is that the common law of blasphemy is inherently discriminatory by only providing protection to the Anglican faith. Such an inequality cannot be justified.

  3.2  There is however a fundamental need to protect all religious beliefs from religious hatred of the type contained in the common law of blasphemy.

  3.3  The Blasphemy laws have been developed through the common law and in a cultural context of protecting the Anglican faith that has been the major religion in the UK. As it is a little used law, one of the best features of the common law ie development and updating of the law through frequent application has been lost.

  3.4  As the laws on blasphemy have only ever considered the mainstream faith of the majority community, there has been no scope to develop the interrelationship between religious and racial hatred. This is a fundamental factor that must be recognised in any legislation introduced to protect the minority religious faiths.

  3.5  In 1985 the Law Commission recommended that it should be abolished and in 1989 the Home Office undertook that there would be no more state prosecutions for blasphemy.

  3.6  It is bad law, out of touch with the needs of modern British society, archaic and discriminatory. Even if the law is amended to cover other faiths, it will carry with it the baggage of its history and unsatisfactory application.

  3.7  We therefore believe the laws on blasphemy should be repealed but replaced at the same time with a clear and modern criminal law to protect all religious faiths, and explore whether such a law should prosecute crimes considered vilificatory instead of blasphemy.

4.  INCITEMENT TO RELIGIOUS HATRED

  4.1  We believe the starting point should be the principles contained in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, namely Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion.

  4.2  Article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the UK is a signatory, provides a good basis for any proposed legislation. It provided that "Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence should be prohibited by law". The starting point of any new law should be to comply with this Article.

  4.3  Adding religious hatred to the existing legislation on racial hatred as proposed by the Government and Lord Avebury would clearly provide a short-term solution to fill the current void. However, there are instances where mere additional use of the religious hatred alongside existing laws on racial hatred may not always be appropriate for investigation and prosecution. Therefore any legislation on religious hatred should be adopted after studying their long-term effects and due consultation with community and legal representatives. An option that could be examined for consideration would be the enactment of a single act on Faith Relations that would cover the various issues being separately dealt with under different laws relating to religious offences, blasphemy, discrimination and public order. A number of factors must be considered if the proposal to add religious hatred to racial hatred is adopted:

  Prosecutions for incitement for racial hatred are few, only 61 between 1998-2001. The reasons for this should be examined.

  The fears expressed about encroachment of the right of freedom of speech at the time this legislation was being considered have not materialised in practice. This should be taken into account in dealing with similar arguments raised in the context of religious hatred.

  No racial breakdown of these prosecutions is apparently available—again we need to understand why. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that persons of colour have been prosecuted under this provision.

  The existing application of the provisions of the Public Order Act need to be examined and monitored as again they have a historical context to ensure that they do operate without discrimination. It would be dangerous to extend the legislation without ensuring that its practical application does not address the mischief it was designed to meet.

  Both the police and the CPS are making concerted efforts to deal with race issues and prejudice within their respective organisations. However, a culture change of such magnitude cannot be achieved overnight. Effective measures must therefore be introduced to monitor the application of the new legislation including at least maintaining records of ethnic breakdown of complaints made and prosecutions brought.

  The right for the Attorney General to initiate prosecutions or to consent to them is retained under the proposed legislation. The Attorney General is a political appointment. However, we do not believe that such decisions can currently be left to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

  We support the proposals for safeguards to monitor the use of this power by the Attorney General. We agree that these should be introduced as part of the new legislation.

  The Internet has become an unregulated area that has facilitated easy communication of hate material. This can be curtailed by:

    —  Regulatory monitoring and censure of hate material by common laws enacted in the country where the internet site is physically hosted.

    —  Self-regulating policies and procedures adopted by Internet Service Providers through supervision of site contents and refusal to host sites that contain hate material.

  4.4  There are many examples of incitement to religious hatred in the UK. Many of these instances are documented and have been reported through media and community organisations. A short list of some incidents has been compiled by the Hindu Council UK and can be produced on demand.

5.  ENFORCEMENT

  5.1  Problems encountered in investigation and prosecution of race related crimes could apply to religiously aggravated crimes. At present, there is a big difference in the number of race crimes reported and the number of prosecutions. Some of the reasons are:

  1.  The level of confidence that victims of crime have in the system is not high.

  2.  Ground level problems including victim's lack of information on reporting race related crime.

  3.  Training for all the people involved in the Criminal Justice System is important.

  4.  Fear of reporting race crime due to fear of future victimisation. This can be corrected by assurances of protection of victims and monitoring of criminals.

  5.  Victims of race crime are usually law abiding and shy. They may not be forthcoming in reporting the crime.

  6.  Because of the nature of the event, the prosecution has to be cleared by the Attorney General and the process of investigation and prosecution is slow.

  7.  Investigation is often hampered by the process of finding evidence that differentiates a non-racial crime from a racially motivated crime.

  5.2  Many of the above problems will be encountered in the enforcement of religiously motivated or aggravated crimes. There are many issues that are unique to religious offences that will need to be dealt with in a manner quite distinct from racially motivated crimes. Issues that need careful consideration are:

    —  whether the Police will monitor religious offences together with race offences together (or as a different subject), and

    —  whether the issues that are distinct to religious offences are understood and monitored by regulatory bodies and legislation adequate for this purpose.

  These issues should be resolved after extensive consultation with faith communities.

6.  PLACES OF WORSHIP

  6.1  We have very little information about this provision and even less about how often it has been used and how effective it has been. We believe that it is better to have one codified law which sets out the rights available to tackle religious hatred and for there to be proper monitoring of how this legislation works in practice.

7.  CONCLUSION

  7.1  In summary, we believe that:

    (a)  The existing Law on Blasphemy be repealed and replaced with a more comprehensive law that covers all faith communities

    (b)  The UK should undertake a comprehensive review of all civil and criminal laws on religious freedom to evaluate whether they are in line with the UK's obligations on international law, and consider enacting a single Law that covers blasphemy, religious offences, discrimination and public order

    (c)  Offences arising from religious discrimination should cover not just offences at work places, but also offences arising for provision of goods and services, education and housing.

    (d)  Adding religious hatred to the existing legislation on racial hatred would provide a short-term solution, but a more comprehensive legislation as envisaged under point (b) above needs to be considered urgently.

    (e)  Issues relating to enforcement, regulatory monitoring and investigation of religious offences needs careful consideration and consultation with the community.

  The above submission was made by:

  Ramesh Kallidai, General Secretary, Hindu Council UK and Executive Committee Member of the Inter-faith Network of the UK

  Kamlesh Bahl, Former Chairwoman, Equal Opportunities Commission and Former Vice-President, The Law Society.

  Dr Giridhari Bhan, President, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (UK)

  Shaunaka Rsi Dasa, President, Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies and Executive Committee Member of the Inter-faith Network of the UK.


 
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