Supplementary Memorandum from the National
1. The Executive Director of the Society
and Dr David Nash gave evidence at the Committee's hearing on
18 July 2002. We made our main written submission on 16 October.
The following written evidence on the Society's behalf is also
submitted to cover some additional matters, partly as a result
of more recent events, and also to draw these various strands
together to reach some conclusions.
2. We hope that the detailed evidence we
provided, as requested, on the Indian Criminal Codefrom
both historical and current perspectivesserved to demonstrate
to the members of the Select Committee what we continue to see
as the total unsuitability of taking such a route.
3. We would like to emphasise that any introduction
of the relevant provisions of the Indian Legal Code into this
country would amount in essence to an extension of the blasphemy
law. The deepest concerns which we raised about the "Indian
Legal Code" would apply mutates mutandis to any
4. When we gave evidence in person we made
it clear that we considered that extension would stifle freedom
of speech and expression, and is totally impractical. We drew
the Committee's attention to the Law Commission's review in 1985.
This repeated earlier conclusions, but in much more closely-argued
detail, that extending the law would be unwise, unworkable (for
example in the definition of religion and precisely how this is
to be addressed) and counter productive. The difficulties were
simply thought to be insuperable, not least because any such law
would lack legal certainty. We are adamant that such an extension,
with its chilling effect, would prove to be unsustainable and
unacceptable to all but the most bigoted in a modern multi-cultural
and democratic society. We also suspect that any extension would
not survive a Human Rights challenge.
ACT 1860, SECTION
5. We are aware that the churches wish to
retain this archaic law, but we have been unable to find any convincing
evidence that it is needed. The number of cases shown by the statistics
is minute, and it seems that most if not all these (whether of
criminal damage or sexual offences) could have beenor in
many cases werebrought under other statutes. On the other
hand, the penalties are unreasonably harsh, especially given the
cases can be heard in magistrates courts. This law must be near
unique in having been lampooned by a stipendiary magistrate in
awarding £18.60 (the year of the Act) in the last high profile
case. Surely it is better to repeal the law than allow it to fall
further into disrepute. Any protection thought necessary for ceremonies
such as funerals could easily be dealt with as an amendment to
the Meetings Act.
SECTION 39 ANTI
6. We expressed deep concern about Section
39 at the hearing, but at that stage there had been no prosecutions
under it. We now have experience of one prosecution and one complaint
which may lead to a case being brought. We only bring them to
your attention because, from this admittedly small amount of evidence,
a disturbing pattern seems to be emerging. This is that, whether
accidentally or deliberately, a perception is emerging that, in
the area of religious offences, those of minority religions are
being given preferential treatment. If the perception gains public
credence that one section of the population is treated more leniently
by the authorities and others less so (as was the case made in
several newspapers over the Exeter case referred to below) then
this will harm community relations and, ultimately, the justice
7. The Clerk to the Committee has been furnished
with details about the case in question, which was in Exeter.
Several newspaper reports suggest that a mutual exchange of serious
insults between a Muslim and a non-Muslim resulted in the latter
being charged but not the former, and that a less serious charge
proposed by the police was escalated to Section 39 by the prosecuting
authorities, but still no charge at all was made against the other
8. Much of the pressure to introduce new
laws stems from the concerns of the Muslim community, or from
others claiming that they are demanding new laws. While not underestimating
the persistence of intolerant attitudes towards Muslims in this
country, demands for a curtailment of free speech when it comes
to criticising religion may be the result of Muslim groups having
expectations of immense public deference towards religion that
mirrors the cultural position even in many democratic Muslim countries,
where authoritarian controls continue to exist on free speech
when it comes to religious issues. The same degree of deference
is not possible or acceptable given the different cultural traditions
of the UK.
9. We also understand that a national course
was held organised by the City of London Police in early November
2002 with the intention of encouraging the bringing of more prosecutions
under this section. Clearly it is important that police and prosecuting
authorities are trained in the implications of new law. We note
however from evidence being brought to the Committee from the
Home Office and police the constant emphasis on the need for more
stringent laws in this area, it seemed to us without sufficient
consideration being given to the problems this might cause. There
was also an acknowledgement that this accorded with lobbying by
Muslim groups. We are concerned that such evidence when taken
together might suggest that undue official pressure is being exerted
to bring in legislation and mount prosecutions under section 39
that would have the effect of muzzling freedom of expression.
We fear that the present politically expedient policy of accommodating
the demands of Muslim community to bring them on side for the
prospective hostilities against Iraq may be leading to bad law,
and could all too easily result in the uneven application of the
law as it stands.
10. A further major concern is that attempts
will be made to use the law to protect the religion itself, rather
than just its adherents. We worry that such attempts could, perhaps
through the operation of precedent, introduce protection to religion
through the back door. To support our concern about this, we give
details in Appendix 1 concerning a comedian about whom a complaint
is outstanding under Section 39. We note with unease the reported
reaction to the complaints by Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general
of the Muslim Council of Britain, who welcomed the investigation:
"Mike Reid must be taken to court and prosecuted because
his remarks will cause widespread offence. The new law was designed
to prevent this kind of attack on religious beliefs. (Our emphasis)
Reid clearly has no regard for the law and is only interested
in stirring up hatred." This seems to us to be a clear attempt
by someone influential who would be expected to have a clear understanding
of the law, to create a perception of it having a greater scope
than it currently has, that expanded scope being much more (and
unacceptably) restrictive to freedom of expression.
11. We consider Section 39 to be a serious
infringement on freedom of expression and, even if it were not,
that the maximum penalties are unreasonably harsh. We accept that
this may be outside the Committee's formal remit and would ask
the Committee to make a supplementary recommendation that Section
39 be repealed, but if it is to remain for the concerns we expressed
to be highlighted and for the maximum sentence to be reduced to
reasonable fines, rather than seven years' imprisonment.
12. We have sought hard to respond to the
invitation to suggest a form of legislation to cover incitement
to religious hatred. Despite consulting widely our view remains
that adding "and religious" to the race relations provisions
would result in a catastrophic restriction in freedom of expression
in the new climate of intolerance referred to above, largely because
of the unbridgeable difference in nature of race and religion.
Even if that were not the case, the supposed safeguards in the
form of attorney general's guidelines were wholly inadequate,
even if they had been made statutory. As you know, we provided
copious arguments against retention or the extension of blasphemy
law, of the "Indian Penal Code" solution and Section
2 of the ECJA.
13. We bring to the Committee's attention
in Appendix 2 the recent Scottish case where the existing Race
Relations provisions have been used in the case of incitement
to hatred concerning Muslims, as a high percentage of them were
of Pakistan origin. We believe that such use of existing legislation
should be the way forward, and is much less open to abuse of freedom
of expression. We do acknowledge that there will be isolated cases,
such as White/Caucasian converts to which this law would not apply.
Nevertheless, most such cases are remote hypothetical possibilities
rather than likely real life cases. The harm done by not extending
the law would be slight compared to the dangers of doing so. We
cannot over-emphasise the danger to the judicial system of allowing
it to become enmeshed in emotive religious matters.
14. We proposed to the Committee that it
recommends a wider use of existing legislation, and:
(a) Abolition of the common law offence of
(b) Repeal of ECJA, Section 2
(c) No additional legislation in this area,
but that the Select Committee also states clearly that it lists
the options it has considered and, broadly, why it has rejected
them. If it does not include this last stage, it would leave it
open to others to seek to impose some of these faux solutions
without learning of the benefit of the deliberations that the
Committee has undertaken.
11 December 2002
Last year when David Blunkett was trying to
get the incitement to religious hatred laws through parliament,
the comedian Rowan Atkinson wrote to The Times in protest,
saying that if it were enacted, comedians wouldn't be able to
make fun of or satirise religion.
His fears were dismissed as exaggerated. But
now they seem strangely prescient, as stand-up comic Mike Reid
is investigated by the police under Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism
Crime and Security Act, which outlaws "religiously aggravated
Mr Reid, best known for playing a part in Eastenders,
was doing his stand-up routine in the Central Theatre in Chatham,
Kent, when a member of the audience, Helen Kirrane, 23, took exception
to remarks he made about Muslims being told to bungee jump without
strings and working as strippers.
Ms Kirrane said she reported the matter to the
police "because he shouldn't be allowed to get away with
it and must be made an example of. The police said they would
take it seriously."
The police in Kent confirmed that they had received
a complaint and that they were investigating.
Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim
Council of Britain, welcomed the investigation. "Mike Reid
must be taken to court and prosecuted because his remarks will
cause widespread offence. The new law was designed to prevent
this kind of attack on religious beliefs. Reid clearly has no
regard for the law and is only interested in stirring up hatred."
A Home Office spokeman said: "To be prosecuted,
a perpetrator must use threatening, abusive or insulting words
or behaviour likely to stir up hatred against a group of people
because of their religious belief."
Tony Lewis, who has been Mike Reid's agent for
32 years, said: "I've never heard anything so ridiculous
or petty. The woman who made this complaint is clearly out for
her 15 minutes of famegood luck to her. Those jokes are
funny. I've never heard him make a racist one. I am aware of the
new religious hatred law and if the police think he has broken
it, they will have no choice but to prosecute. We don't care."
Perhaps Mr Lewis is unaware that if convicted,
Mike Reid could face seven years in jail.
Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular
Society said: "We hold no brief for racists, and we haven't
heard Mike Reid's act. But we are alarmed that Iqbal Sacranie
thinks the law is there to protect his religious beliefs. If he
imagines that people should get seven years for criticising or
poking fun at Islam, then we worry that eventually someone in
the judiciary might agree with him."
A BNP activist has been jailed for four months
for posting thousands of racist leaflets around the Muslim community
David Wilson, 31, a father of two, was sentenced
after being found guilty of inciting racial hatred last year.
He posted the leaflets through as many as 4,000 doors in the Pollokshields
area of the city, urging residents to stop "militant Muslims".
Yesterday, security was stepped up as Wilson
appeared at Glasgow Sheriff Court for sentencing amid fears of
clashes between anti-nazi protesters and BNP activists. Sheriff
Linda Ruxton told Wilson:
"You have been convicted of distributing
written material which was threatening, abusive and insulting,
whereby you intended to stir up racial tensions in Pollokshields.
"Such conduct threatens to destabilise a
community and threatens to undermine all the efforts by the community
to enjoy good racial relations.
"A sentence of imprisonment is only appropriate
given the nature of the offence.
"It should also serve as a strong deterrent
to others, making clear that such behaviour strikes at the heart
of community life and will not be tolerated."
Sherriff Ruxton then jailed him for four months.
Afterwards, the outcome was widely welcomed
by anti-racism protesters in Scotland.
At an earlier hearing, Wilson, of Dalmuir, Glasgow,
became the first person north of the Border to be convicted of
the offence of inciting racial hatred after it was proved he targeted
one particular nationality with the racist literature.
90% of Muslims in the Pollokshields area come
The court was told Wilson had joined other BNP
members posting the letters to the homes of both blacks and whites
in July last year.
Their campaign groupFamilies Against
Immigrant Racismsalleged white people were being subjected
to a series of violent attacks on the south side of the city.
About 100 police officers were drafted in with
another 20 in the courtroom as Wilson was led in.
Kenneth Waddell, defending, told the court his
client had already suffered as the offence had destroyed his marriage.
It is also believed he will more than likely now be sacked from
his £20,000 a year job as an engineer at BAE Systems, in