Incitement to religious hatred
219. A recurring issue was the possible new offence
of incitement to religious hatred, set out in the Serious Organised
Crime and Police Bill. Many of our witnesses were ambivalent about
the proposal, largely on grounds of freedom of speech;
at least one, the National Secular Society, was frankly hostile.
By contrast the proposal was supported by, for example, the Muslim
Council of Britainalthough
others in the Muslim community were less certain.
The Home Office said that "the Government does not believe
that the current legislative framework is sufficient to counter
the Islamophobia and prejudice that some Muslim people experience".
220. The proposal is currently receiving separate
consideration in this Parliament as part of the scrutiny of the
Government's Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. There is
therefore little that we can usefully say about its substance.
But we were struck by the warnings given by the Director of Public
Prosecutions, who said:
"I think the main issue around that is managing
] One of the dangers around incitement to
religious hatred is that communities - and indeed representatives
of the Muslim communities have said this to me - believe somehow
this is going to protect them from people being offensive or rude
about Islam. It is not going to do that. You are perfectly free
to be offensive or rude about any religion, there is no law against
it. The danger is that if people think it is going to protect
them from that and it does not they feel very let down by us,
by the police, by the Government and by everybody else, and we
get accused of being racist or incompetent, or a combination of
the two, when in fact we are just applying the law. So it is
very important that people understand what that offence will achieve:
it will stop the grossest sort of conduct, but it is not going
to stop people being rude about Islam."
221. The Crown Prosecution Service's written submission
noted that, between 2001 and 2004, 84 cases of incitement to racial
hatred had been referred to them. There had only been two convictions.
The CPS commented:
"Such cases prove very difficult to prosecute
and raise a number of key issues around free speech and the evidence
threshold required. Most crucially in terms of community relations
these cases can create an expectations gap between communities
understandable concerns to see cases brought to justice and the
limitations on what can be prosecuted. Communities can become
frustrated with decisions not to prosecute and CPS is often criticised
as incompetent or discriminatory in its handling of such cases.
Given the seriousness attached to handling such cases CPS is confident
that this is not an area of service underperformancerather the
challenge lies in prosecuting the cases referred."
222. The Minister of State argued that there had
been extensive debate in the House of Commons and elsewhere over
the new legislation and that there were a range of provisions
that would prevent its abuse. She believed that the Government
had been "crystal clear" what it sought to prevent,
that a range of faith groups now supported the proposed law and
that the Muslim Council understood its scope. She nonetheless
accepted that dialogue would have to continue with faith groups
to ensure they too were clear about what could and could not be
223. We are concerned that, although leaders of
the Muslim community may have an accurate appreciation of the
limits of the proposed legislation on incitement to religious
hatred, this is not shared by their community as a whole. It is
vitally important not to raise unrealisable expectations in minority
communities, and rather than trusting to dialogue with leaders
of faith groups, the Government should develop a strategy to ensure
that the extent and limitations of the proposed offence are fully
understood by all. We suspect that the extent of the legislation,
and how often it is likely to be used, may also be misunderstood
by some who oppose it. It is of course important to emphasise,
as Ministers have tried to do, that such a change in the law should
not be seen as a ban on criticism of any particular religion.
The right to practice a religion, to criticise religious practices
or to propagate non-religious belief is a basic right in a free