Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)



Chairman: Welcome, members of the Home Office team. This is a public meeting now and we are on television, whether we get broadcast is another thing. As it is a public meeting, I am going to ask very quickly that the Members of the Select Committee go round the table under the Code of Practice and say whether there is any interest that they wish to declare. If there is not, there is not but I will just give them the opportunity to do so. Lord Griffiths?

   Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach: I am a Christian and a member of the Church of England and involved in various Christian organisations.

   Lord Bhatia: I am a cross-bencher and I come from the Muslim community. I chair also a foundation called the Ethnic Minority Foundation which has amongst its network many faith organisations.

  Lord Grabiner: I am Jewish and I am a member of an orthodox grouping within the Jewish religion called the United Synod.

  Lord Avebury: I am Buddhist and I am the Patron of the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy.

  Chairman: I am a member of the Church of England and am a church warden. I was brought up in the Episcopalian Church of Scotland, otherwise I have nothing which is not in the Register.

  Baroness Richardson of Calow: I am an ordained minister of the Methodist Church. I am Moderator of the Church's Commission for Interfaith Relations.

  Baroness Perry of Southwark: I am a member of the Church of England. I am Anglican. I am a former church warden and I have been very much involved with the Council of Christians and Jews' work.

  Lord Clarke of Hampstead: I am a practising Roman Catholic and have received a Papal Knighthood.

  Earl of Mar and Kellie: I am a Presbyterian and a member of the Church of Scotland and a member of the Kirk session of the parish church of Clackmannan.

  Baroness Wilcox: I am Church of England.


  1. Remember that will now do but if there is anything special which turns up at any particular meeting then the code of conduct says you should mention it. Now, that formality having been completed, could I ask the three of you to introduce yourselves, please.
  (Mr Weatherill) Yes. Thank you, my Lord Chairman, for that welcome. I am Richard Weatherill and I am Head of the Race Equality Unit of the Home Office. We are part of the Home Office's Community Policy Directorate. On my right hand side is Neil Stevenson who is a member of the Race Equality Unit and who is our expert on racist crime, though I should say also that it was Neil who, as it were, did the work on the provisions on incitement to religious as well as racial hatred on the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act, so that is his side of the fence. On my left hand side is Valerie Keating. Mrs Keating is from the Home Office's Sentencing and Offences Unit, a different part of the Home Office but Valerie is our expert on blasphemy. These matters are dealt with in different bits of the Home Office for historical reasons but we will try and tell a single story.

  2. You do not need to be told why we are sitting here taking evidence on this matter. Could I just thank you for sending the note about the law as it now is and as it would be if the incitement to religious hatred is put into it, as has been suggested by Lord Avebury in his Bill, very useful for those who find a lot of difficulty going through statutes who make amendments by reference. That is very helpful. There are quite a lot of questions to ask you. I intend to finish at half past one or indeed before if we can. I am going to invite you to deal with them either individually or it may be in groups if you prefer. Of course any Member of the Select Committee can ask supplementary questions on what you say. Can I ask you to go ahead. It may be it will be that questions one, two and three are a group which you can deal with together but I will leave it to you. Two strands of our inquiry are clear: amendment or abolition of longstanding offences such as blasphemy and the introduction of a new offence of inciting religious hatred. Are there any other issues under the heading of "religious offences" which the Committee could or should examine? In particular, are there any issues in relation to offences arising out of religious discrimination? We have another question at the end about that. Does the Home Office have a definition of "religious"? I will leave it to you whether to deal with those individually or together.
  (Mr Weatherill) Let me attempt to deal with those questions one by one. Could I just say one thing by way of general introduction which concerns the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know we have some questions on that coming up. It is simply that so far as Scotland is concerned, these are devolved matters and they are reserved matters so far as Northern Ireland is concerned. We are not experts, we cannot speak on behalf of those parts of the United Kingdom. We are very happy to help the Committee to the extent we can on factual things but if it goes beyond the factual then it would be our colleagues in those other parts of the United Kingdom who would need to be consulted.

  3. You have to be experts on Wales.
  (Mr Weatherill) We have to be expert on Wales and I think the position in Wales is in all respects identical to the position in England. Let me turn to the questions, if I may. On the first one "Are there any other issues under the heading of `religious offences' which the Committee could or should examine?" we think not. The only other category with which the Committee might want to be concerned is the category of what we call religiously aggravated offences, offences which were introduced under the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act. Those offences have only been on the statute book now for six months and we think it is a bit early to be looking into what has happened as a result of the introduction of those offences. In the normal course of events the Department itself would be having a look at how those offences have operated I guess in two or three years' time but I think it is a bit too early to be doing that. We would suggest that the scope of your inquiry is drawn as it should be.

  4. Right.
  (Mr Weatherill) The second question follows on from that "Are there any issues in relation to offences arising out of religious discrimination?" Again we think broadly not. Discrimination in the United Kingdom has been dealt with, generally speaking, as a civil matter, that has been the case for discrimination on grounds of race as it has been for gender and, indeed, for disability. There is, as the Committee will know, further legislation coming along as a result of the European Race and Employment Directives under Article 13 of the Community Treaty. The Department of Trade and Industry have been carrying out a consultation exercise about that. The consultation period ended fairly recently and the responses to that are being looked at. On this particular aspect we do not expect there to be any great departure from the trend. We do not see anything arising narrowly from that.

  5. It would not be criminal law at any rate?
  (Mr Weatherill) No, exactly so. It would continue to be dealt with primarily as a civil matter.

  6. Yes.
  (Mr Weatherill) On the third question "Does the Home Office have a definition of `religious'?" Well, we do not. The approach which the government adopted in the context of the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Bill was not to include any definition of "religion" or "religious" on the face of the Bill. I think that follows the way that this sort of thing has been dealt with in legal matters in most other areas. There are some exceptions to that but by and large attempts have not been made to define religions. We think that should there be any issue about whether a particular group was a religious group and needed protection from these provisions then it should be for the courts to decide that on a case for case basis. Certainly we do not have a ready made definition to assist on that.

  Chairman: Does any Member have any questions on that?

Lord Avebury

  7. On that final point. There is an analogy with the racial hatred provisions, is there not, in that you do not define race? You define racial hatred and religious hatred is defined in the Anti-terrorism Bill as it is in the draft for my Bill. So the position is analogous, is it not, as between the definitions of racial and religious?
  (Mr Weatherill) Yes, it is not an analogy which had occurred to me but yes. I suppose it is a little surprising that a definition has not been incorporated because we tend to be quite keen on spelling things out on the face of statutes but in this particular example we did not think it was something which could sensibly be done.

Earl of Mar and Kellie

  8. Can I ask you whether the Home Office regards the word "religious" as extending to supporters of football teams, because the background not only in my native Scotland but also in Liverpool and such like as I understand it is that there appears to be a religious dimension to football supporters?
  (Mr Weatherill) I think I am going to ask my expert to comment on that but it does not sound like a religion to me.

  9. I was not suggesting that football was a religion.
  (Mr Weatherill) I am sorry, your point is that there may be a religious affiliation to do with support for a particular club.
  (Mr Stevenson) Certainly it is something which is likely to be considered in the Scottish Executive. The definition of religious hatred in the Bill was raised, religious hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief, so the group is defined in terms of its religious belief. So a group of football supporters, if you like, are not defined in terms of religious belief though they may have a religious belief.

  10. Singing songs which criticise them, do you believe that would come into the extent of the Bill?
  (Mr Stevenson) I think there is a difference between singing songs criticising another football team and singing songs criticising another religion or religious belief which may be covered by the Bill.

  11. I realise this was a marginal case but I wondered how the Home Office was going to view it in England.
  (Mr Stevenson) This is certainly the case in Scotland, it is a real issue in Scotland. It is the case in football at the moment that there are racial offences in football, racial chanting, and the public order offences apply in football grounds. It would apply in the same way as in any other.

Baroness Richardson of Calow

  12. In the religious discrimination matters the phrase is "religion or belief", is it a useful phrase to be added to any non definition "religion or belief"?
  (Mr Stevenson) Religion or belief is a fairly standard construction in European law and in UN law and it is taken to mean religion and lack of religious belief. In this Bill, and certainly in the clause which was in the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Bill, the phrase religion and belief was felt not to be specific enough for the criminal law which is why there is a reference to religious beliefs or lack of religious belief in this Bill and in the Anti-terrorism clause.

Lord Grabiner

  13. Why should a judge be any better at ascertaining the correct meaning of the word than Parliament? I express that rather curiously but is the reason for the lack of definition the difficulty associated with finding one?
  (Mr Weatherill) The argument is that a judge would be dealing with one case at a time and that is quite a different task from trying to define the generality of things across the board. We are not suggesting that a particular judge should be able to do what Parliament has not done but we are saying that the judge would be looking at each case and would be able to enquire into the particular circumstances of that case.


  14. Would you have any views about the necessity to call expert witnesses on what is or is not religious?
  (Mr Stevenson) In the context of a court case?

  15. Yes. The individual judge, he may have to direct the jury, how are the jury going to decide it?
  (Mr Stevenson) I think if we look at the analogy of race cases again, where courts have certainly looked at what the definition of a racial group is, and they have looked at expert opinions on different aspects of different racial groups and ethnicity, it is certainly possible that a judge could consider taking expert evidence on the interpretation of a religious group.

  16. It would be more likely to be the parties which wished to introduce the material. I do not think the judge would do it of his own accord.
  (Mr Stevenson) Yes, it is distinctly possible.

Lord Avebury

  17. It has been necessary for agencies of the Government to produce ad hoc definitions of religions for particular purposes. I am thinking of the prisons where the right of visiting ministers to enter prisons and look after the spiritual needs of people belonging to their faith are extended only to certain religions and not to others who may claim to be religious. The two particular cases are Rastafarians and Scientologists. The Prison Service treats Rastafarians and Scientologists as being not members of religions therefore not qualified to be visited by visiting ministers. There may be other examples where particular definitions are adopted for precise purposes but would not be necessarily appropriate to the extent of the general law.
  (Mr Weatherill) Exactly so and I am familiar, Lord Avebury, with the example you give. The Government has not gone through a list of religions or groupings and attempted to decide which should or which should not be afforded the protection of these provisions.


  18. May I just say this, if any of you have further thoughts about any of these points which have been raised and you want to let us have a supplementary note afterwards, we would be very pleased to have it.
  (Mr Weatherill) Thank you.

  19. Could I go on then to the question about the Law Commission Report of 1985. Why has the Law Commission Report not been implemented by legislation? Do you have a view about the majority or minority report or neither? Can you just give a little bit of reasoning if you have a view?
  (Mrs Keating) As far as the Law Commission Report goes you will appreciate that since 1985 we have had a number of governments of different political views. However, the report was rejected I think because it is such a very difficult issue. It is an area that touches fundamental beliefs. Even the Law Commission themselves were not absolutely unanimous about the best way forward. In the absence of a very clear cut recommendation about the way forward the Government felt that it would be a mistake to seek to legislate.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003