Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002
40. I still think however, if I may say so,
that we would like a note upon the non-public activities which
are covered by that 1860 Act because I think there may be something
there that is not susceptible to being dealt with in any other
way. It would be very helpful if you could tell us.
(Mrs Keating) Yes, we will look at that.
41. We then asked are there any developments
affecting these offences since the Law Commission reported in
1985? These offences being the common law and the statutory offences.
(Mrs Keating) No, there are not.
42. Would you have a list of the cases that
have been heard in the courts under these provisions and particularly
the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act?
(Mrs Keating) Are you talking about the provisions
in clause 1(2).
43. The repeals, yes.
(Mrs Keating) I could check but I doubt that there
will be an awful lot.
44. As part of the note it would be quite useful
to know what cases have been brought.
(Mrs Keating) If we have anything it might be statistical
information rather than details of cases. I am perfectly happy
to check and see what we can turn up.
45. See what you can do, please. The problem
is probably going to be that they are not in a court of record
and therefore there will no report of them, they will be either
in a magistrates' court or Crown Court so we will never have anything
except a transcript that has probably never been transcribed.
We asked has the Law Commission given any further consideration
to this subject and we have since heard the answer and it is no.
Then the territorial extent of these offences I think you have
already dealt with. In Scotland it is a matter that has been devolved.
In Wales we are dealing with it on the same basis as England.
In Northern Ireland it is reserved, which means to say it is dealt
with here or in Belfast?
(Mrs Keating) There are two possibilities. It is reserved.
It means that the Northern Ireland Assembly could pass primary
legislation approved by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
on this subject or we could do an order in the Parliament here
to make changes to it.
46. But there is no pressure from Northern Ireland
to do anything, is there?
(Mrs Keating) No.
(Mr Weatherill) Not in relation to blasphemy.
47. We then asked if there are different offences
in force in Scotland or Northern Ireland. We have a copy of the
1987 Northern Ireland Order. In Scotland I think there is a very
different common law offence concerning this material. Could you
tell us a little bit about it?
(Mrs Keating) I could tell you a little bit about
it. Again, I need to stress that obviously here we are not experts
on Scottish law but we will do our best to help. For the detail
the Scottish Executive would be the best people to turn to. In
Scotland it is a crime of common law to publish or expose for
sale blasphemous works which are intended to asperse, vilify,
ridicule and bring into contempt the Holy Scriptures of Christian
religion. The last reported conviction for blasphemy in Scotland
was in 1843 and it is very unlikely that any further prosecutions
will be brought. Publications which might be considered blasphemous
in content can presently be dealt with as indecent publications,
while blasphemous statements made in circumstances likely to provoke
a breach of the peace can be prosecuted under the common law as
a breach of the peace. I understand that presently there are no
plans to change the law.
48. And if the breach of the peace is aggravated
there is a substantially increased penalty as I understand it?
(Mrs Keating) I would assume so, that is the normal
practice. As I say, I am not an expert on Scottish law.
49. I think we have already discovered that
the Scottish Parliament or Executive are expressing views on the
issue concerning blasphemy. Do you know what they are doing about
what was not put into the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act
(Mr Weatherill) The Scots have set up what I think
is called a cross-party working group to look at all the issues
and that is still in progress, we do not know what the outcome
of that is.
50. So that is incitement to religious hatred,
(Mr Weatherill) Indeed.
51. Perhaps we could go on to incitement to
religious hatred. After the 2001 Act was passed with Section 39
in it what gaps remain in the criminal law in relation to offences
based on religious hatred? You wanted to have what is now clause
2 in Lord Avebury's Bill. Do you still think that such a series
of offences is necessary and should be on the statute book?
(Mr Weatherill) Yes, the position so far as the Government
is concerned remains as Lord Bassam outlined it on the Second
Reading of Lord Avebury's Bill. Even before September 11 of last
year it was clear that we were in an anomalous position because
the courts had held that the existing law on incitement to racial
hatred had the effect of protecting some religious groups where
those groups could be defined by reference to their race but not
to others. So, for example, it seemed that Jews and Sikhs were
protected but Christians and Muslims were not protected. After
September 11 we all saw an upsurge in the sort of behaviour which
this offence is designed to protect us from. It was for that reason
that the Government decided to include in the Anti-terrorism,
Crime and Security Bill the provisions that were included and
the case has not become any weaker.
52. All the same, have you got specific examples
of occurrences where it would have been useful for law enforcement
agencies to have that common offence but where they were unable
to act because of the lack of it?
(Mr Weatherill) There are examples, I can give the
Committee that assurance. Quite a lot of the things I am thinking
of are very current, things which are still being investigated
by the law enforcement agencies. If you will forgive me, I do
not think I would want to be in the position of giving you specific
examples which are still being examined. We thought quite hard
about how we could best assist the Committee on this. There is
something called the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and
Xenophobia who have produced a report on events of this kind since
September 11 and I think the best thing we can do is give you
a copy of that.
53. We have that.
(Mr Weatherill) You have got it. If you want to follow
up any specific things on that after this session we will be very
happy to do that. That provides the fullest possible picture of
the situation as it now appears.
54. You cannot help us for the reasons you have
given at this stage?
(Mr Weatherill) That is correct. I can only repeat
certainly from material I have seen that I am personally satisfied
that there is a gap which needs to be filled.
Chairman: This may well give rise to some questions
from other Members.
55. Continuing from what you have just said,
I think the law as it stands at the moment may be silent on certain
issues. If I can give you an example. There has been an attack
based on religious grounds post 11 September, it gets reported
to the police and the police take two views. One is there is an
existing law which allows them to take this forward or they may
wish to go to the prosecutor's office to find out whether that
is correct or not. You have said that you will be sending us more
information on current cases coming through but is there any evidence
at this point in time that you can give us which says that the
police themselves are unable to act because the law does not provide
for it, or the prosecution service did not think it was something
that would work in the courts?
(Mr Weatherill) I would like to help but I am very
reluctant to get drawn into specific cases, I do not think that
is quite what Government's role should be. We can certainly have
another look at the material we have and see if there is anything
we can give you that would help. I would commend the European
Monitoring Centre's report as a good digest.
56. What might be helpful is to know whether
you have received any representations about the lack of powers
that are available to the police from religious groups and from
(Mr Stevenson) Certainly from the Muslim community
we have had representations on the lack of an incitement to religious
Baroness Perry of Southwark
57. I want to ask about the Human Rights Act
and whether that does not provide wide powers of protection. I
forget which articles they are that give the right to religious
freedom, freedom of expression, but would that not cover a great
many of the kinds of worries that people have about religious
(Mr Weatherill) The Human Rights Act and the European
Convention on Human Rights confer rights but they do not in themselves
create criminal offences. What we are talking about here is creating
sanctions against types of behaviour which we wish to prevent.
The Human Rights Act in itself does not do that.
58. But if somebody tries to persecute me or
interfere with my rights to practise my religion freely and openly
then I can take them to court under the Human Rights Act.
(Mr Weatherill) As a civil matter.
(Mr Weatherill) But that would be as between one individual
and another. Here what we are trying to do is create criminal
sanctions which enable the public authorities to take criminal
proceedings against perpetrators.