Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales First Report


Chapter 1: Introduction and Background

1.  We were appointed "to consider and report on the law relating to religious offences" and in our Call for Evidence identified two main strands of our inquiry:

·  Should existing religious offences (notably blasphemy) be amended or abolished?

·  Should a new offence of incitement to religious hatred be created and, if so, how should the offence be defined?

2.  At no time did we see these two strands as mutually exclusive, but the immediate history behind the appointment of the Committee (see Chapter 2) led some to believe this to be the case. Furthermore, while we did not specifically ask whether old laws such as blasphemy should be retained in their existing form, it was implicit in our thinking.

3.  In moving the appointment of the Select Committee, the then Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff) said that the Liaison Committee had considered a proposal that the Religious Offences Bill (the RO Bill) introduced by Lord Avebury and given a second reading on 30 January 2002[1] should be committed to a Select Committee. But, he said, the Liaison Committee believed it would be better to refer the subject of religious offences to an ad hoc select committee "rather than limit the Select Committee to the terms of the Noble Lord's Bill". The Religious Offences Bill does however raise the two main issues concerning religious offences (deriving, respectively, from the Law Commission's 1985 Report[2] and the "incitement" clause omitted from the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001). These are, first, the proposal to abolish the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel as well as closely related common law and statutory offences; it also takes the opportunity to repeal some other 19th century statutory offences less closely connected. Second, it reproduces the Clause concerning incitement to religious hatred which was dropped from the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 following disagreement between the two Houses. After the Select Committee invited comments on the Bill, many of those who responded did so, as said above, on the basis that the second element constitutes a replacement for the first. However, the offences have different targets: blasphemy concerns sacred entities or beliefs while incitement relates to people or groups who belong to a particular faith. Rather, it has been necessary to examine both elements in some detail; although the possible new offence of incitement to religious hatred has a relevance to blasphemy it cannot be considered without placing it in a modern statutory context, but there has been no aspiration necessarily to replace blasphemy and other related offences.

4.  The Committee recognised that its deliberations would be seen by the varied, and individual, religious groups in the country in the light of their own perceptions of how they felt themselves to be treated both by the law and more generally by institutions of the state. Many non-Christians feel that they are to some extent marginalised by comparison to those who adhere to the Christian faith, while Christians feared that the Committee would undermine their interests in some way or another. We did not however view the complex of issues we had to consider as an either/or scenario in which there would be winners or losers. Our main objective throughout was to examine the relevance and utility of existing religious offences, many of which were enacted in the 19th century when values and perceptions were very different and British society less diverse than today. A number of factors had to be taken into consideration: the role of religion in society in the 21st century; the large increase in the number of adherents to non-Christian religions; a persistence of what might be described as "folk religion" in all faiths including Christianity; and the position of those who adhere to no religion at all. What is the extent to which their interests were the same as or different from those of Christians, and should the same principles be applied to the legal protection of all their beliefs (or non belief)? Should they be the same as applied to Christianity? Is there, overall, a gap in the criminal law (the terms of reference relate to "offences") where redress is needed?

5.  The Committee received more than five hundred written submissions, many of them quite short letters from members of the general public, and also substantive contributions by the leading representatives of Christian churches and other, particularly Muslim, faiths. We also examined witnesses from the Home Office, the Police Service, the Council for Christians and Jews, the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, Christian Churches, the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities as well as those of no faith who advocate a secular society. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney-General also gave oral evidence. The Committee met 24 times to take evidence and deliberate. We also visited the University of Cambridge to participate in a seminar arranged for us by Sir David Williams QC, emeritus Vice Chancellor.

6.  The first three chapters of this report and the appendices contain factual material relating to the issues covered by our terms of reference. Thereafter, the report reflects different possible approaches to the main substantive issues, which are complex and controversial.

7.  Members of the Committee have declared their interests as follows:

Lord Avebury        Lib-Dem    Buddhist

Lord Bhatia        Crossbench    Muslim

Lord Clarke of Hampstead    Labour      RC[3]

Viscount Colville of Culross    Crossbench    C of E[4]


Lord Grabiner        Labour      Jewish

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach    Conservative    C of E

Earl of Mar and Kellie      Lib-Dem    Church of Scotland[5]

Baroness Massey of Darwen    Labour      Humanist

Baroness Perry of Southwark    Conservative    C of E[6]

Bishop of Portsmouth            C of E

Baroness Richardson of Calow    Crossbench    Methodist[7]

Baroness Wilcox        Conservative    C of E

1   HL Bill 39, 2001/02 Back

2   "Offences against Religion and Public Worship" (Report: LAW COM. No. 145) of June 1985 Back

3   Holder of Papal knighthood Back

4   a) Brought up in the Episcopalian Church of Scotland; b) Church Warden Back

5   Presbyterian Back

6   Former Church Warden Back

7   Ordained Minister, ex Moderator of the Free Churches, currently Moderator of the Churches' Commission for Inter Faith relations Back

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