Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)

1 MARCH 2005


Q480 Mr Prosser: Minister, it is encouraging to hear your wish to meet with Muslim people on the ground and young Muslim people in particular. Just before you took your seat we talked to some young Muslim people from Bolton, which you might know, who took part in the PeaceMaker Survey, and you could do no better than to start your discussions with those people, and perhaps a note from our Command Meeting will give you some good signposts for the future. My questions though are to do with the issue which you have just left us with, Islamophobia and discrimination. The situation at present is that although you classify, for instance, stop and search, by ethnicity, you do not classify it by religion, and there is quite a debate raging over the issue of whether there has been a disproportionate increase in the number of stop and searches against Muslims since 9/11. Notwithstanding the figures you have given us, would it not be a good idea if the Home Office classified stop and searches by religion so it would show whether this disproportionality is taking place?

  Ms Blears: First of all, Mr Prosser, can I say I would be delighted to take up your suggestion. I have met those young people and to do that would be very good I think. This is a very controversial issue. It is a debate which is raging at the moment, as to whether or not we should monitor on the basis of religion rather than the way we monitor at the moment. Some people feel very strongly that religion is an intensely private matter and would not want to declare it. That would then make it difficult to be assured that our statistics were robust, depending on the proportion of people who were prepared to declare their religion. In some other cases people have been asked to declare their religion and there have been some, what are described in my briefing notes as "perverse reactions" and I do not know what kind of entries people gave. Because it is controversial, and I can see why some people would want it to be done, in fact the Community Panel which I have just referred to are going to be looking at this at their next meeting which is on 14 March, and I shall be very interested indeed to see what their recommendations are with regard to this. As I say, I think opinion is evenly split around this issue and I certainly do not have a fixed view about whether or not we ought to do it but there are some real logistical problems in getting statistics which are sufficiently robust for us to monitor them.

Q481 Mr Prosser: It could be a subject you could discuss in your session with the young Muslims.

  Ms Blears: Indeed.

Q482 Mr Prosser: An area which is not quite so dubious, I say, is the actual incidents of Islamophobia and at the moment we have no independent agency or no independent gathering organisation to number these. Do you think the Home Office should help set up such an agency?

  Ms Blears: We currently have no plans to have a statutory body because we do not think that would be appropriate. There is the Community Security Trust which is an independent charity which monitors anti-Semitic incidents and it may well be that something similar might be appropriate in relation to Islamophobia. There is the Muslim Faith Forum, which is a joint group between the community, the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police, and that is very active. We also have a project called "Don't Suffer in Silence" which again is about third party reporting, and that is going to be piloted in three London Boroughs, in West Lancashire and in Lincolnshire, and already forces up and down the country are very interested in seeing if they can get more reporting of these kind of incidents. So there are a number of models which are out there. As I say, I would not want to see a national statutory body but I think there are a number of models which we can build on to make sure there is a broader awareness of the fact these incidents are taking place.

Q483 David Winnick: On incitement to religious hatred, there continues to be concern; Rowan Atkinson for example has argued that this would be a restriction on entertainers like himself having a "go", if that is the right expression, at religion. Why should the Islamic religion be more protected than, say, the Christian religion or the Jewish religion or any other religion one would like to name? What would be your reaction to that?

  Ms Blears: I agree that one religion should not be protected above another, and the provision we have in the Serious and Organised Crime Bill is designed to give the same protection to Christian people and to Muslim people as currently exists for Jewish people and Sikhs, because under the current Public Order Provisions which are about racial hatred the actual issues which give rise to the hatred can in fact be religion or anything else. So there is a provision to protect Jews and Sikhs. What there is not, is a similar provision to protect Muslims and Christian people from having hatred stirred up against them. I want to be very clear on the record here, that this legislation is not about protecting religions, it is not about protecting ideologies, it is about protecting people, and it prevents people having hatred stirred up against them on the grounds of their religious belief, or indeed lack of it, because it also protects people who do not conform to a particular religion from having hatred stirred up against them. It is nothing to do with satire, with ridicule, with comedy, you can be as offensive as you like, it is up to you, but if you stir up hatred against people I do not think you should be allowed to do that, whether on the grounds of their race or their religion.

Q484 David Winnick: I accept your argument, I actually argued and voted for the law in order that it is the same way as, for instance, Jewish and Hindus, who are protected by previous legislation. Do you believe, Minister, there are nevertheless expectations, say in the Muslim community, that the religion itself will be protected, and therefore if a book comes out like Salman Rushdie's book, then the Attorney-General be undoubtedly be pressed to take action through the courts?

  Ms Blears: I think when this whole area was first mooted, before any provisions were drafted, there was indeed some confusion about what the provisions would look like and that was about a year or so ago. I think since the provision was drafted, that confusion and misunderstanding have actually been cleared up, and I know that Iqbal Sacranie wrote a letter in February where he sets out very clearly his understanding of the provisions as currently drafted and what they do. So it is important that we are very clear about it and it is not about protecting a particular religion. There are a number of safeguards which will prevent vexatious or frivolous proceedings. First of all, you have the ordinary test for any prosecution, is it likely to succeed, is it in the public interest, then you have the extra hurdle here about the Attorney-General having to take a view on it, and the Attorney-General has to act in accordance with human rights. So there are four different hurdles in there, so I do not think we are going to get vexatious proceedings. As the Act gets known and as people know what the provision is more clearly, there is likely to be less pressure for prosecutions. On the race side, we have only ever had 86 references for prosecution in the period 2001-04. So we are not inundated with these things but it is a case of managing that quite carefully. In relation to books or plays, and there was the play in Birmingham as well, neither of those would have been protected, because this is about protecting people so they do not have hatred stirred up against them on the grounds of their religion. Clearly there will be a lot of debate around these issues because they are controversial but I think the law will be pretty clear and hopefully well understood.

Q485 David Winnick: I am not an authority on this but as I understand the position, religious believers, again I suppose not all of them by any means, are rather sensitive about their religion and we have had protests from Christians over the recent Springer programme. Can we be quite clear about this. Just as that was done within the law, however much I understand some Christians' views—and one or two constituents have written to me over the issue and I have written to the BBC on their behalf, not my behalf—insofar as that was perfectly legitimate, perfectly lawful in a democratic country, then the same could be done about any other religion—Jewish, Hindu, Muslim—as well, if this law comes into operation? Are we absolutely clear on that, Minister?

  Ms Blears: Yes. The offence as set out in the Bill is very clear and it has to be words or actions that are intended or likely to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religious belief or lack of it. There are three very clear and distinct limbs to the offence and it is about stirring up hatred against people on the grounds of their religious belief. I think it is clear. I know there are some members who do not agree with that. We did have a very, very lengthy debate in Committee Stage and at Report Stage of the Bill. I am satisfied the law is clear and I have no doubt that the Attorney-General in administering that law will have a similar, clear-sighted view.

  David Winnick: I hope that satisfies Mr Rowan Atkinson. Whether it does or not, remains to be seen.

Q486 Mr Clappison: Minister, I think you have accepted, as you accepted in Committee, that the Bill has been framed in terms of protecting people, but I think you accepted yourself in Committee that the offence could be committed by saying something about religion without reference to people.

  Ms Blears: What I said was that if it had the effect of stirring up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion, that could be so and it would depend on those circumstances.

Q487 Mr Clappison: Correct, and that could be done through a criticism of the religion itself.

  Ms Blears: You say "a criticism", I think it would have to be of huge significance in order for it to stir up a hatred, because it is the hatred it is aimed at.

Q488 Mr Clappison: It might be a significant criticism of a religion then.

  Ms Blears: You and I can debate what that threshold might be. Clearly the Attorney-General will need to take a view on whether or not constituent parts of the offence are sufficiently fulfilled for there to be a criminal act committed.

Q489 Mr Clappison: Can I come on to that, because since then, the Director of Public Prosecutions has given evidence to the Committee saying it is a question of—I think his words were that the main issue around it is—"managing expectations". What are you doing to manage expectations because in some quarters it has got out that this is going to result in far more prosecutions than looks likely, at least according to the present Director of Public Prosecutions?

  Ms Blears: As I have explained, before the clause was drafted people did have confused expectations about what might be delivered. Since the clause was drafted, debated, considered, by the House of Commons—there has been a lengthy discussion of it—I think the Government has been crystal clear in terms of what it is aiming to prevent. It is not about protecting religion, it is about protecting people. It does not prevent satire, ridicule, all of those things, it prevents people stirring up hatred against others on the grounds of their religion. I think we have been very clear about that and I think the letter from the Muslim Council now accepts that entirely. We also have support from a whole range of faith groups, it is not just the Government. A whole range of faith groups actually support this law being brought in because it provides a level playing field and gives the same protection to Muslims and Christians as has been available to Jews and Sikhs for some considerable time.

Q490 Mr Clappison: So whatever faith group it might be, Christian, Buddhist, whatever, you feel expectations are now at a realistic level and they have not been raised too high?

  Ms Blears: I have certainly tried to ensure that the Government has done everything it can to be as clear as possible. I think we will need to have on-going dialogue because we deal with a whole range of faith groups. We certainly do not want to see a position where this provision is used to heighten community tension by having inter-faith disputes. That is absolutely not what we want to do and that is why it is important for us to carry on having this dialogue with those faith groups to ensure they are very clear about what the law can and cannot do.

Q491 Chairman: On a broader point about community cohesion, over the last three or four years there does seem to have been a marked growth in every single faith group of organised groups of people whose main aim is to complain about offences being committed against their beliefs, whether they are Jewish, Sikh, Muslim; every faith group has this. Are you worried that this growth of sensitivity to offence, to criticism, is actually helping to undermine community relations, if each faith group becomes more and more defensive about perceived criticisms, either of their beliefs or of their activities? If so, is there anything the Government can do, aside from legislation, to try and rebuild the atmosphere of greater religious tolerance which seemed to be much more common place ten years ago?

  Ms Blears: I think it is a matter of concern when people cannot have criticism without being immensely defensive. I think we would all want to try to create an atmosphere where people can debate vigorously and with passion and conviction, but at the same time still have respect for one another's views. I am not unhappy that people feel very strongly about their religion, because I think in some ways that is a strength for people and helps them to deal with all kinds of adversity which are around us, but the worry is when that passion, conviction and strength of faith becomes defensive and that could possibly lead to that kind of difficult relationship. I think one of the main things we can do is encourage more inter-faith work. We have been supporting a whole range of inter-faith organisations. We have also been bringing together rabbis and imams to work together to see what are some of the common strands of their faiths and then to debate some of the differences, and I am pleased to support as much of that work as I possibly can. The more people understand each other and the more they meet face-to-face, in my experience, the less tension we have; the more people conduct correspondence from afar, the more likely it is to result in tension.

Q492 Bob Russell: Minister, would you accept that the view from the public bar of the Dog and Duck is that immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees and indeed the settled ethnic minorities, are all basically the same? How has that impression come about? Is this the media which has done this?

  Ms Blears: I think it is partly the media. I think some of the reporting, some of the language which is used—you only have to look at some of the newspapers we see and some of the dreadful headlines which are out there—has been influential in this. I am not going to blame it all simply on the media, also there are some fairly pernicious political groups around as well, the BNP and others, who take advantage of tensions which are in communities and issue some pretty vile propaganda which can help to stoke these feelings amongst people. There are some things we can try and do to help, if you like, bust the myths which go on around asylum seeking. I know my own local authority in Salford has issued a tremendous leaflet which goes through the myths one by one, about what benefits people get, what housing people get, what services they get—the kind of myths which are around, like, "Every asylum seeker is living in a marvellous, wonderful, well-furnished property" et cetera—and I think it is incumbent particularly on local authorities to try and do as much of that work as they can. I think the mayor who was elected in Stoke-on-Trent actually made a personal campaign to go out there and do exactly that kind of work. So it is partly the media but also these terms which then become general currency, if you like, and sometimes all of us can be guilty of that.

Q493 Bob Russell: I am delighted with these local examples which you have given, but do you not think that Government Ministers should be doing a lot more in the hope that will balance perhaps some of the media coverage? Do you think the media have reported responsibly? You have only mentioned the written word, are you saying the radio and television are not in your sights when making these criticisms, that it is only the newspapers? Could you be more specific because clearly it is not all the newspapers, surely?

  Ms Blears: No, but I do not think it is appropriate, Mr Russell, for me to sit here and condemn one newspaper and not another. I have concerns generally about the tone of reporting. I think it is worse in some media outlets than in others. That is why we have set up a couple of things. We set up a Media Practitioners' Group following the disturbances we had in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, to bring the media people together. We have also recently funded a practical set of guidance for editors and journalists about how to (a) stay within the law in their reporting and (b) how they can have more literacy around some of these complex issues concerning religion and culture, and help them use some other words than the ones they tend to cling to. So that is very practical help. Also the Improvement and Development Agency, which works with local government, has produced some guidance for local authorities' communications people, so they can help to educate their local media in their area about what they can do as well.

Q494 Bob Russell: Does that best practice include the National Union of Journalists, because my recollection is the NUJ has a very strong code of conduct which I would suggest some Fleet Street newspapers perhaps do not really follow? Should the NUJ be brought into this as well?

  Ms Blears: I am not sure if they are members of the Media Practitioners' Group; I would be surprised if they were not. I will certainly look into that, Mr Russell, I think that is an excellent suggestion and one we should take on board. I will just make another point, you said about Government Ministers making statements around this. You will know in the debate around immigration and asylum we have been at pains to talk about the positive contribution which is made by many of the people who come to this country and do jobs in our Health Service and other facilities. That is very much a balanced part of our strategy, to try and make sure we do get the benefit which comes from managed migration to this country clearly in the public's mind.

Q495 Bob Russell: I welcome that and I will ask you also to regularly publish the fact that inward investment, so to speak, results from those who are settled here working and being net contributors to the national economy and not a drain, and I think that is something which if it was said time and time again by, I suggest, you and Home Office colleagues it would have an impact on the media. So are you saying the media coverage of these issues has been a significant factor? I think you are.

  Ms Blears: Yes, I think the language used has sometimes not helped to create the kind of tolerant and inclusive society we would all want to see. What is important is that we take practical steps to try and change that. We cannot dictate what is in the newspapers, neither should we, we have a free press which is out there doing its job of reporting, but what we can do is try and explain these issues to the journalists, the people involved, and see if we can influence them in terms of some of the language used.

Q496 Bob Russell: Would you acknowledge if the media gave a balanced report—the fears we have from the various ethnic minorities and particularly those we have heard from the Muslim communities—that would go a long way to retrieving the situation?

  Ms Blears: I think it would help significantly if all of this debate was conducted in a less confrontational manner.

Q497 Mr Clappison: Minister, it is clear that many people in Britain today are sceptical about the reality of the terrorist threat to the country. What are you doing to convince them?

  Ms Blears: I would challenge, first of all, the basic presumption that you make, Mr Clappison, that the public are sceptical about the terrorist threat. I think the public—and this is my general belief as well as on this particular issue—are far more capable of understanding complex, difficult, frightening, complicated issues than we ever give them credit for, and they are also capable, dare I say, of seeing through some of the most complex, obfuscating language that any of us use as politicians as well. The poll which was in the Daily Telegraph yesterday was quite enlightening to me. It seemed to indicate that the public did know what we were intending to do to try to contain the terrorist threat, something like 75% of them agreed with what we were trying to do, they understood the balance between national security and civil liberties—complex issues—and I was quite heartened by that. But that does not mean we have not got more to do, and that is why we have got an on-going communications strategy around our counter-terrorism strategy itself. We have just recently issued the Prepare for an Emergency booklet which went to every household. We are doing quite a lot of communications work with the business sector, with the voluntary sector. We do need to do more with the general public as well as that booklet, to continue to talk to them about the nature of the threat. I suppose my bottom line is that we try and keep the public alert but not alarmed, and that is quite a difficult balance to draw. But our general mission statement is to reduce the terrorist threat so our citizens can go about their daily business free from fear. That to me is what is most important here—enough information but not to the point where people are constrained from living their ordinary lives because of the terrorist threat.

Q498 Mr Clappison: I think many people would agree with what you are saying on that, Minister, but I mentioned the word "sceptical" in my question. Do you agree it is important that people should be able to have trust in information, and trust in particular what the Government is telling us, and that is something the Government should hold in high esteem?

  Ms Blears: Yes I do, because inevitably on these issues there will be things which cannot be revealed to the general public, and we had a debate around a lot of that yesterday, about how much evidence can be produced in the normal criminal justice system and how much can be shown to defendants and their legal representatives, and inevitably we are asking people to take some of this on trust; not just trust in the Government but trust in the security services, trust in the police, as well. If that trust breaks down, I agree with you, that would damage our efforts to really fulfil our counter-terrorism strategy.

Q499 Mr Clappison: I do not want to go back over the ground which we went over yesterday, I am sure we will come back to that in the future, but can I move on to a slightly different subject, and that is the question of extremist religious views which are imported into the country in some cases, particularly the extremist Islamic views which have come in? We know the vast majority of imams and religious leaders in the Muslim community are sincere, genuine and moderate, but we do have a problem—and I think this is recognised—with some preaching more extreme views coming from certain parts of the world. What policy do you have on that, particularly individuals who come trying to lead people astray with an extreme view?

  Ms Blears: I think the general background is that clearly we have a right to free speech in this country, a democratic right, of which we are rightly proud, but the difficulty is when people start to use that right to free speech to say some pretty horrendous things, and it is a very fine line when they cross that boundary between free speech and inciting people to commit crime. The police monitor some of these extremist preachers in a very careful way in terms of tapes, analysing their words, analysing what has been said and they will if possible prosecute. In fact there was Abdullah El-Faisal, who was convicted in February 2003. He was a preacher and he was convicted of incitement to murder and he got nine years because he was encouraging people to kill other people during some of his preaching. So action can be taken but it is a fine line. We monitor all the time to see whether that line is being crossed.

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