Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002
20. Can I just ask a first supplementary myself.
Do you see any dangers in stirring up this particular subject
by trying to introduce legislation?
(Mrs Keating) By trying to introduce legislation to
repeal the Act or to do something else?
21. Well, it could be to repeal, as the majority
suggested, without replacement but would that in itself be likely,
in your view, to stir up a number of people or organisations to
say that they need to be covered rather than the whole thing should
(Mrs Keating) I think the debates which went on when
the amendment was put down during the Anti-terrorism Crime and
Security Bill quite clearly demonstrate that the strength of feeling
on this issue really has not changed since the initial reaction
to the 1985 Report. It is still something on which people have
very deeply felt views and convictions. It is still not an easy
matter to decide to repeal or replace.
(Mr Weatherill) Just to amplify that. The Government
is not in any way suggesting that these are matters which should
not be discussed. On the contrary, I think the Home Secretary
has indicated he is very, very keen that the debate should be
continued and certainly would not wish in any way to prevent the
issues from being ventilated.
Chairman: I think you are speaking to the converted.
We have no option.
22. Is it not obvious that some members of the
Church of England would have wished to maintain their privileges
as they did in 1985 and as they have done consistently all through
the years down since that point? Did it not occur to the Home
Office after the majority recommendation for the abolition of
blasphemy to consult with the Church of England and to see whether
there was a majority within the Synod or more widely?
(Mrs Keating) I think that in 1985 we certainly had
a different administration in place then. There were views put
forward by those groupings to the Law Commission and they made
their views known and they were recorded in the Law Commission
Report as I recollect.
Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach
23. Could I ask: do you feel there is any reason
at present to revisit this particular issue of blasphemy? Do you
feel there is a particular need from the community or from relationships
between various religious groupings within our country which makes
it a priority or do you feel that, as the Chairman has said, it
simply stirs up very deep seated feelings to have this item taken
out and examined and looked at again?
(Mrs Keating) I think the Government position on it
is quite clear that they want to have a constructive debate about
it but certainly Lord Rooker, I think it was, made it clear again
during the debate on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act
that at the moment this was not one of the Government's priorities.
They had a full legislative programme in place and the view then
was then was not the time to seek to legislate on this. However,
against that, the Home Secretary has made his personal position
very clear in that he personally would like to see the end of
the law on blasphemy. I think the Government is not opposed in
principle to legislation but I think that they do think that a
constructive debate needs to be held, but that is not to say that
at some future time they may not decide to act on it.
24. As the law stands at the moment there is
a blasphemy law which protects certain parts of the Christian
church. Some time in 1986 the Race Relations Act was amended to
protect the Jewish and the Sikh communities and that is very good,
there are two other interest groups that have protection beyond
the blasphemy law. Do you think there is some way in which the
rest of the faiths could be protected and where would that be?
(Mrs Keating) I think that again is one of the problems
which is identified in the Law Commission's Report. Quite clearly,
the current offence is anachronistic in that it only does apply,
as you say, to a small section of the Christian faith. The problem
I think comes, and has been identified, in how it could be extended
to cover other religions without actually impeding people's rights
to freedom of speech, freedom of expression. I think it is just
recognised as something which would be extremely difficult to
25. Would you not agree, therefore, just considering
the Government's commitment to religious equality in all other
spheres of our national life, that it is incongruous to have a
law remaining on the statute books which protects the members
of one religion only and not those of any other religion? Therefore,
have we not got a stark choice between either extending the law
on blasphemy so that it covers every religion or abolishing the
existing offence and leaving it to the Public Order Act or any
other legislation we may seek to devise of a general nature and
not specifically one religion to deal with the evils which one
supposes have been tackled in the past by the blasphemy law?
(Mrs Keating) I think you are right in identifying
the two options. Certainly you could repeal it, you could extend
it, or the third option, of course, is to do nothing, which has
been the one which is currently in force. I think part of the
reason why there is not any great pressure to do this is because
it is not a law which is actually used. It has not been used since,
I think, 1922 in England and in Scotland I think it goes back
to 1843, since there were public prosecutions. In the UK the only
recent prosecution was the 1970 Gay News case so it is
not a law that is used. Therefore, I do not think that one can
say that it has evil consequences because there is not any evidence
to support that it does as it is not used.
26. Can you just confirm the Gay News
case could not have happened if it had been today because there
is no right under the law as it now stands for a private individual
to bring proceedings as Mrs Whitehouse did in the Gay News
case, although it was taken over by the Attorney-General, she
could not do that if she was still alive today and the circumstances
arose, it is not any longer possible for a private individual
to launch proceedings of that nature?
(Mrs Keating) Yes.
27. Are you aware of any evidence to suggest
that the presence of the blasphemy lawit is not statute
but common lawhas had any impact whatsoever on the way
(Mrs Keating) No.
28. There is the case of the video of St Teresa
of Avila where there was, as it were, prior scrutiny by the authorities
which licensed the videos and they concluded, and it was upheld
in the European Court, that they were within their rights in deciding
that that particular video could have been blasphemous and was
therefore forbidden from publication.
(Mrs Keating) Therefore I retract my comment in the
light of your greater knowledge.
29. Apart from that example, are you aware of
(Mrs Keating) I am not aware of any, no. That is not
to say that there may not be other examples but none that I am
30. None that the Home Office has done any research
on or investigation of?
(Mrs Keating) Yes.
31. If the blasphemy law was evident in other
faiths, do you think the usage of that law would be far greater?
(Mrs Keating) I am afraid I do not think I can really
comment on that. So much would depend on the way in which the
law was framed and what it sought to achieve. I do not honestly
think I can give an answer to that hypothetical question.
Baroness Perry of Southwark
32. Just returning to Lord Grabiner's point.
Are there not in our laws already ways of dealing with people
who behave in an abusive or threatening manner to people about
their religion or indeed about any other aspect of their private
lives? Would extending, for example, the law on blasphemy to all
religions give anything other than what our existing laws already
(Mrs Keating) Certainly there are a number of laws
- I think probably Neil may be a greater expert on some of these
than I am - which enable individuals to be prosecuted if they
are offensive. Certainly as far as physical assaults and threats
go, there is quite a wide variety of legal provision which would
cover anybody in the country.
(Mr Stevenson) Certainly there are offences and I
have in mind particularly Sections 4, 4A and 5 of the Public Order
Act, of which there are religiously aggravated versions which
are about threatening, abusive and insulting behaviour which causes
an individual harassment, alarm and distress. They are directed
at individuals. The difference between those offences in terms
of the blasphemy laws is that the blasphemy laws are directed
at the faith and not the individuals or members of that group.
33. Did you want to add something, Mr Weatherill?
(Mr Weatherill) I think Neil has made my point.
Earl of Mar and Kellie
34. On the subject of the option of extending
blasphemy to other faiths, would that not pose a problem of the
competing claims of each religion, for example that they are the
true religion, would that not in fact lead to an incredible mushrooming
of blasphemy cases as each official religion says the other is
making a blasphemous remark?
(Mrs Keating) I think you are right that if the law
was extended to cover other religions, apart from the difficulty
that I have mentioned already and which has been touched on earlier
about how you define religious beliefs and who would be in, who
would be out, I am sure you are right that perhaps if it was extended
there would quite possibly initially be a number of test cases
to test out the law but I do not think we could then predict how
many there would be after that. Given the lack of use of the existing
law for the particular area of faith that it covers, I think it
is far from clear that apart from testing it out initially that
there would be huge numbers of cases, but again we are speculating.
(Mr Weatherill) It seems to me what lies behind all
these questions is the overriding consideration which is I think
certainly we have not seen a way in which either the blasphemy
law as it stands presently, or some modified version of it, could
be extended from Christianity to protect other religions without
really going very far into free speech. We have just not seen
how it could be done.
35. Thank you very much. I think you have really
dealt with our question six: Do you consider that it would be
sensible or feasible to extend the criminal law on blasphemy etc
to other religions or beliefs? I think you have all answered that.
Then we ask this: the list of offences, which includes some statutory
ones listed in Clause 1 of Lord Avebury's Bill, is that a complete
and correct list in addition to the two common law offences? Could
I ask you, also, because I have been looking again at the Law
Commission's Report, is there something special about Section
2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860 which
deals with things which would not be susceptible for handling
under Public Order even if we extended it? For instance, the example
they gave there is the pig's head put in the Mosque and there
is also the desecration of cemeteries and that sort of thing which
that particular section may still be alive and able to deal with.
(Mrs Keating) I have not looked at it particularly
in the light of the Public Order Provisions, certainly we could
go away and do that and give you a note on that subject if it
would be helpful.
36. Otherwise is the list complete?
(Mrs Keating) Otherwise the list is complete, yes,
and of course that section is particularly useful because it does
cover other religions, it is not confined.
37. Section 2 covers a very wide range of activities
but not Public Order ones necessarily.
(Mr Weatherill) If we may we will go away and look
at that point again for you. That aside, after a very thorough
search by the lawyers we think this is a complete list.
38. But the Law Commission made a very sensible
series of comments on this particular matter.
(Mr Weatherill) We need to look at that again.
39. The example that was given in the 1985 Report
was of some demonstrators who stood up and denounced Harold Wilson's
policy on Vietnam in the middle of a church service. Do you think
that it is necessary or desirable to have on the statute book
a provision which makes it an offence to do something of that
nature in a religious building when it would be perfectly legal
if Harold Wilson had been in a public meeting of any other sort?
(Mr Weatherill) On the face of it, no, but I will
go and revisit the report just to check on that.