Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002
60. I understand that very well but my question
is why is that an improvement, why is it better to make it a criminal
act than to give me my rights and to give all other citizens of
this country their rights to practise their religion freely and
to take somebody to court under civil law if those rights are
(Mr Weatherill) Incitement to racial hatred has been
on the statute book as a criminal offence since the 1970s. What
is being suggested here is that we have seen through the way that
the provision has operated that it has operated in an anomalous
way and we wish to ensure that the protection afforded by that
offence extends to all those that we believe should be protected.
61. You do not think that the Human Rights Act
(Mr Weatherill) Not sufficient protection.
62. I do not want to teach you to suck eggs,
and I doubt I would succeed even if I tried, but it ought to be
possible to devise some scenarios which would reveal what is currently
perceived to be a gap or gaps in the existing legislation without
divulging the details or concerns about current litigation.
(Mr Weatherill) By all means. The whole of the loophole
exists in relation to Muslims who do not count as a racial group
for the purposes of the existing incitement to racial hatred offence.
If I stand up in public and utter threatening, abusive or insulting
words with the intention of stirring up hatred against Muslims
I do not commit a criminal offence, so there is your example.
That would also be the case if I stood up and did the same in
relation to Christians.
63. Is there not an aspect of this which perhaps
touches on what Lady Perry was asking. The advantage of having
a criminal offence is that the prosecuting authorities can deal
with something which it may be too threatening for an individual
citizen to take to the civil courts.
(Mr Weatherill) That would certainly be the case.
One is simply saying that this is a matter which we believe society
should deal with so seriously that it should be a matter for the
public authorities and all the apparatus of the criminal law should
(Mrs Keating) Obviously if found guilty of a criminal
offence then the individual is liable to punishment and imprisonment
whereas with the civil offence that would not be the case. It
is a much greater sign of public opprobrium than a civil offence
Lord Clarke of Hampstead
64. Is the Home Office doing any work on the
law as it applies to election material circulated at times of
elections? The local government elections earlier this year threw
up some very dreadful experiences for a number of people in minority
groups. I wonder if the Home Office is calling for examples of
some of this literature that caused offence to be examined?
(Mr Stevenson) We have had representations about some
literature which arises from election campaigns. The law applies
equally to election material, there is no exemption for election
material, and that matter was referred to the police.
65. Is anything happening about it where it
is quite clear that this has caused offence? The question was
about gaps in the present legislation. Is there a need in view
of what has been witnessed for that gap to be plugged? I am not
referring to a particular party but to the law as it applies to
circulating this material.
(Mr Stevenson) I think the gaps that exist in the
existing law are the same for general material as they are for
election material, so the gaps that deal with election material
are the same that we are talking about here.
66. You are looking at what was
(Mr Stevenson) In the sense that any changes to the
existing law would apply to election material.
67. You are examining the things that were circulated
earlier this year?
(Mr Stevenson) We have seen that material, yes.
(Mr Weatherill) Just to repeat what Neil has said,
we did examine the material and we passed it to the police because
we believed a criminal offence may have been committed.
Lord Griffiths of Ffforestfach
68. I have no feeling for how significant a
social problem incitement to religious hatred is. Is there any
sense of some scale as to how widespread this may be or how serious
it is? Do people write to Ministers about it and say "the
Crown Prosecution Service let me down" or "the police
let me down" and so on? Is there any sense that you can give
us of its significance?
(Mr Weatherill) It is difficult to know how one would
measure it. I think I would answer that question by saying that
this area of law, incitement to racial hatred, has never given
rise to a larger number of cases in the courts. I do not believe
if the law is extended in the manner that it would be under Lord
Avebury's Bill that that would change. We are not looking at a
large number of cases coming before the courts. Generally where
those cases do come about you are talking about pretty serious
stuff and the Government would say you are talking about behaviour
which really should not be tolerated in a civilised society. The
scale of it is difficult to measure but the nuisance we would
say is serious.
Baroness Richardson of Calow
69. Can I continue that, and it is speculative
I know, but had this been on the statute books, for example, in
the riots in Burnley and Bradford, what effect might it have had
on calming any of that situation or bringing any of the perpetrators
more clearly to justice?
(Mr Stevenson) It is extremely difficult to say. I
think the incitement offence, if it had been used in those situations,
would have been used before the riot. The riot is a different
kind of behaviour. Whether there is any behaviour which could
have stirred up hatred to such an extent that a riot occurs, and
at that stage in the process that may have occurred, we are not
aware of specific cases where we could say that there was evidence
of behaviour in those circumstances in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford
specifically on religious grounds.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead
70. May I say, my Lord Chairman, that in the
report into the Burnley disturbances we made it very clear that
we did not want them described as "riots", they were
disturbances. It would be worth you looking at the report and
recommendations for the period that led up to the disturbances
on 23, 24 and 25 June last year.
(Mr Stevenson) We have. What I was trying to get at
was the difference between racial and religious hatred in this
regard. There was some careful consideration whether there was
incitement to racial hatred prior to the disturbances in Burnley,
Oldham and Bradford.
71. This is really the heart of this particular
issue. The difficulty that we are in is you have told us that
the Home Office still considers that there is a good case for
introducing a variety of offences of incitement to religious hatred
but you cannot tell us why in relation to anything that is current
because that might prejudice current proceedings and in answer
to Lord Griffiths you said you have not really got anything very
firm to go on. Why does the Government take this view at all?
What is the basis for your view?
(Mr Weatherill) If that is what you understood me
to be saying, my Lord Chairman, I clearly was not expressing myself
as well as I should.
72. Have another go.
(Mr Weatherill) I am sure the European Monitoring
Centre's report will help the Committee. I see exactly the difficulty
the Committee is in. Perhaps if I may I can go back to the office
and have another look at some of the material we have got and
see if there is a way that we can help you on that.
73. I have looked at the European Monitoring
report, the difficulty about it is that it is very unspecific
too and it is not very helpful for us to try and pinpoint what
it is that we ought to be considering in this context. I welcome
any further help you can give.
(Mr Weatherill) We will go and see what further help
we can give the Committee.
74. We were talking about cases that may have
been reported and not taken forward but do you have any feel for
cases that never get reported because many communities have felt
unprotected and there is a feeling of "what's the use"
because nobody listens?
(Mr Stevenson) It is certainly the case in our experience
of racial hatred cases that they are considerably under reported
so I would imagine there would be a considerable number of cases
which have not been reported. It is certainly the case that in
discussions that we have had with the Muslim community we have
heard of cases raised by the Muslim community with us which the
Muslim community did not raise with the police. We have encouraged
the Muslim community to raise those particular cases with the
police. Yes, I think we would accept there are likely to be several
cases which have not been reported.
75. Under reported?
(Mr Stevenson) Yes.
Baroness Perry of Southwark
76. But surely if people on a housing estate
or in an area of a city begin to incite their fellow citizens
to violence against another group it does not matter whether it
is on the grounds of race or religion or anything else, they are
committing a crime.
(Mr Stevenson) That is correct, yes. It is a different
offence. We have to make the distinction here between incitement
to violence, which is a crime in itself, and the specific area
of incitement to hatred, hatred itself not being a crime, so it
is a very specific, narrower range of behaviour that we are talking
about which falls between on one side the incitement to a crime
and on the other side aggravated offences.
77. Is that not exactly the problem where you
bump into free speech? There are non-believers, atheists, who
feel extremely strongly that religion has caused immense problems
in society, is the background to many wars and many unpleasant
things. Are they no longer able to say that? If we created a law
of incitement to religious hatred ---- I happen to have a faith
but supposing I were an atheist and I wanted to say in an intellectual
context that I believed religion was the greatest evil that destroyed
Western Europe and much of the world in the last 500 years, could
I not say that any more?
(Mr Stevenson) Yes, you can. The law says that you
cannot use threatening, abusive or insulting language intended
to stir up racial or religious hatred. The language in itself
has to be threatening, abusive or insulting. I think we make a
clear distinction between criticism of a religion and religious
practices and actual inciting hatred against members of that group
because of those practices. That is the distinction that the Government
made when it presented the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security
provisions and it is a distinction that exists in incitement to
racial hatred where it is not an offence to advocate racial superiority,
for example, in some cases where it can be, if you use threatening,
abusive or insulting language, designed to stir up racial hatred.
78. It seems to me that although it is too early
for the Home Office to say anything about the effect of the law
on aggravated offences, because the aggravated offences are, if
you like, the end product of incitement, that is what they lead
to in the end, to violence against members of religious minorities
because of their membership of those minorities, it would be useful
for us to have some statistical evidence from the Home Office
as to what has happened in the courts so far.
(Mr Weatherill) In relation to racially aggravated
(Mr Weatherill) These are offences which have been
in operation for less than six months.