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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-174)



Baroness Massey of Darwen

  160. We had not quite completed question no.6. You seem to be saying it would be helpful to have a new offence for incitement to religious hatred. The second part of that question is quite difficult: how should we frame it to ensure success of prosecution? What is your response to that?
  (Mr Fahy) Overall, our feeling is that if it was framed along the lines of the existing law for incitement to racial hatred, that would work. The Attorney General would need to consider what guidelines there should be around the issue of fair comment, which would be more problematic than it is under racial discrimination. If it was framed along the same lines as for incitement to racial hatred, it would reinforce the issue about equality. At the moment, the Jewish and Sikh faiths are covered, but the Muslim faith is not. There would be a problem if such a law was seen to be framed in a way that was weaker than that for incitement to racial hatred and would just reinforce the feeling of inequality.


  161. In the light of questions nos.1-6 and 8, apart from two other discrete matters that I will ask you about in a moment, have we now covered what is, in your view, the desirability of using the Public Order Act mechanism to increase the armoury for serious religiously aggravated offences in addition to racially aggravated offences? Is there anything else you want to add on this?
  (Mr Fahy) We certainly felt there are still some difficulties in the way that the Anti-Terrorism Act relates to religiously aggravated offences and there are some anomalies within that.
  (Mr Tucker) The Anti-Terrorism Crime Security Act amends the legislation so that exactly the same wording applies, so in that sense there is not an anomaly. The difficulty from the policing perspective comes from the fact that you have to charge both offences if there was any doubt because you cannot in the same charge have religiously or racially aggravated, so you have to put both offences.

  162. Do you require something to be said about duplicity?
  (Mr Fahy) There is an element of duplicity. You are charging two very similar charges about the same incident. It will always look as though the prosecutor is trying to have two bites at the cherry. There are some offences, like section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act that cannot be religiously aggravated. The reason for that is that it already carries a life sentence, and therefore it could be argued that it cannot be further aggravated. On the other hand, it seems an anomaly that it is not there.

  163. Mr Fahy, that is not right, if I may say so. The reason why the very serious offences that carry life penalty for instance were not dealt with because the evidence before the court of the type of behaviour that the defendant had gone in or, albeit you do not have a separate offence, does aggravate what he has done to the extent that the judge can use his powers within the maximum to impose a more severe penalty than would otherwise be the case. The 1998 legislation dealt with the less serious offences where for the sake of argument two years is not considered to be a great enough maximum. You have still got the very serious offences, and that is why I asked you about evidence and presentation. Have you had any difficulty about this? I cannot imagine that you have.
  (Mr Fahy) No, we have not had any difficulties, but we still see an anomaly in that because section 18 would not be charged specifically as being religiously aggravated and it does not have the same symbolic effect. I understand your point, and in all these cases, clearly, it eventually comes down to whether the judge recognises that in a sentence, and whether that is reported to have that deterrent effect.

  164. I do not want to get into very complicated matters, but the particulars of the offence, if it was a racially or now religiously aggravated matter, would so state. Would you not deal with it in the particulars if that were a section 18 wounding or GBH?
  (Mr Fahy) Yes, clearly, we would.

  165. You cover it in any event, do you not?
  (Mr Fahy) Yes, indeed.
  (Mr Tucker) The difficulty that can arise is that the element of a racially aggravated section 20 offence, which is the unlawful wounding, is different to a section 18 offence. If you are not quite careful about it, you could charge a section 18 offence; the jury could return a guilty verdict on section 20; and the racial aggravation would be lost because the elements of the offence are not the same. You could only go from a section 18 to a section 20; you cannot go to racially or religiously aggravated section 20 offences.

  Chairman: It may not be the only occasion when the CPS put the wrong particulars in the charge. There are two things I would like to ask. Is there any experience on the law of blasphemy and that type of offence? We have not asked you a specific question about it, but, as you probably appreciate, it is one of the matters that is before this Committee. If you have any experience, we would be grateful to know about it.

Lord Avebury

  166. I wanted to ask you particularly about the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act 1860, which is the only one of the statutory offences that was repealed by the Religious Offences Bill which has been used in recent times. It penalises riotous, violent or indecent behaviour in a sacred place. That does apply to non-Christian places of worship as it does to the churches. Do you think there is any room in the law for a particular offence of causing disturbances in a religious place of worship that would not apply elsewhere, and can you think of any recent cases where that power to prosecute has been used?
  (Mr Tucker) I can only think of one particular case where it was used and that was in relation to the gay rights issue. Somebody was charged then but I have never heard of it being used in any other circumstances.

Lord Avebury

  167. The only place it was used in the Law Commission's report in 1985 was a case where demonstrators interrupted the service that was being attended by Mr Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, to protest against his policy on Vietnam. That was 35 years ago. Can you let us have any information that you could come by about more recent prosecutions under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act?
  (Mr Fahy) We are not aware of any prosecutions, but we can see if we can find out. In general, we would recognise that sacred places are of great importance to the different religions. When we have had to deal with times of tension, we always give particular protection to mosques and Dilwaras and other places of worship. I can certainly see occasions when that law could be used. Again, such a circumstance would probably be covered by existing public order legislation. There has always got to be an advantage in having laws that reflect the seriousness of the situation, and the particular importance that faiths give to their places of worship, which should be recognised.


  168. Mr Fahy, I think one of the points about this is that there may be a desecration when there is nobody else there, in the middle of the night or something like that, which needs to be able to be dealt with. The Public Order Act would certainly not cover it.
  (Mr Fahy) No, but often the law relating to criminal damage would cover that.
  (Mr Baines) That is right. My Lord Chairman, I was actually thinking as we were speaking about instances where there have been riots and disturbances in religious premises, very similar, as Mr Fahy has outlined, to churches, dilwara and in mosques. I think there have also been examples, as you have stated, where there have been incidents where the places have been empty. To my knowledge, this Act has not been used. It may well be that there are circumstances when action could be taken.

  169. You were not given notice of this. We are always open to a supplementary note from any of you. It would be extremely helpful, if you subsequently think of anything along this line, if you could let us know. The other thing that we had on our list to ask you was whether police officers of faiths other than Christian have had to confront religious hatred or discrimination because of their work. I do not know whether that is directly in line with what we are dealing with in this Select Committee but I think it would be very interesting and valuable to know if you have examples of this.
  (Mr Fahy) I can personally say that certainly some members of the Christian police Association have said that they have faced discrimination. I am surprised to a degree there is a distinction being made but certainly again the Faith Police Associations do feel they are discriminated against in terms of public holidays, in that their own holy days are not recognised, and such issues as prayer times and diet. For instance, police officers who have been studying at police training schools often say there is no provision for their particular diet. Clearly, Mr Tucker has talked about the issue of uniforms, which we are trying to address. For Sikh officers, some police forces insist that all police officers wear what we call major helmet: a crash helmet for riot training. Clearly Sikh officers would regard that as a form of discrimination. Some Jewish officers have complained about the fact that the sabbath is not respected and they cannot be guaranteed to have time off on the sabbath. So there is a range of issues on which essentially the Association of Police Officer is now putting out guidance for police forces. The Association advocates a commonsense approach, that the operation needs of the service come first, but often very commonsense measures can be put in place, for instance, to allow officers who wish to observe their faith to say their prayers during the day, without really affecting the service to the public, in the same way that some members of staff can have a cigarette break, shall we say. It has been shown by the Metropolitan Police that the needs of Muslim women can be accommodated with the uniform and that in time officers of a faith could exchange their particular holy days for other public holidays. In fact, it would be of benefit to the service because then everybody would not be trying to have the same day off for Christmas or whatever. So there are practical measures that the police force can put into effect to increase confidence amongst those officers that observe a faith. Clearly, in the long term we hope that will encourage more members of ethnic minorities in particular to want to join the service.

  170. The problem is whether we can do anything about these matters. It is as well to air that. Is there anything else you would like to add?
  (Mr Baines) I would just like to add along that line that we have done certain things. We are trying to address some of these issues which are very relevant, such as prayer rooms and quiet rooms available to those of all religions and introduce those, and the introduction, for example, of halal meat in police canteens. I would like to echo the comments of Mr Fahy. I think the police service is going in the general direction where it has to address some of these issues right across all religions if we are going to include members from all faiths in the police service.

Baroness Richardson of Calow

  171. This is not really to do with this either, but in your training of police officers of all faiths or none, does a sensitivity towards faith issues figure in their training? It seems to me that sometimes there could be a little more sensitivity towards some very delicate areas of faith that is not always shown.
  (Mr Baines) Perhaps I could answer that question? One of the things we have piloted, particularly in Bradford, over the last 10 or 15 years, is that every new probation constable who comes to the city actually spends a day visiting other people's religious places, Dilwara and Hindu temples and mosques. They have an emersion training and learn about some of those different faiths as part of their very basic introduction to policing in the city. That is something that we have tired to develop.

Baroness Wilcox

  172. May I supplement that by saying: does that work both ways? Does that mean that you would teach Muslims what the tenets of the Christian faith require?
  (Mr Baines) We have taken probationers to churches. That would include Muslim officers. We have also taken them to other places as well, for example to the Salvation Army because we are trying to teach officers about the welfare of people who are very different to themselves in that general context. So we have looked at all kinds of different ways of introducing officers to some of those issues. Yes, we would include that.

Lord Bhatia

  173. I just want to go back to the definition of relations, which was raised earlier. It seems that in the Anti-terrorism Act, which was passed last December, we were able to leave in attacks on religious grounds on individuals. That stayed there. What was dropped off was incitement to hatred. It seems that there was not any difficulty in having to defend religion for that part of it. Do you think it is incongruous that we should have worried about the definition of religion in terms of hatred and incitement to hatred?
  (Mr Fahy) No, we do not see a difficulty about the issue of the definition of religion. I think the difficulty we see is around this issue of fair comment, which we think would be more problematic than it is on racial grounds. As I say, we are concerned about us being involved in demonstrations where it could be alleged by one side that what was regarded as fair comment and people's own very strongly held views about issues like animal rights or abortion, or whatever, would then put us in a position where we would be asked to take action on what might be incitement grounds. We see that as a difficult area. We would have to go to the prosecution authorities for their advice. We do see that particular issue as being more problematic because, as I say, all faiths have particular beliefs which other people may well object to and want to question. I think, though, that the distinction was made here that it is about trying to incite hatred against a body of people and them as individuals and question their moral standing, rather than questioning their reasoning behind a particular tenet or a particular belief.


  174. May I say how very much we have appreciated those extremely valuable and interesting answers. Could I just tell you once more, if you have any further thoughts on any of these matters, we would be delighted to receive them. Send them to our Secretary. For the moment, it is sufficient on behalf of all of us to thank the three of you very much indeed for the way in which you have addressed this. You have given us a lot to think about. We will read this transcript with a lot of interest. Perhaps you will too, I do not know.
  (Mr Fahy) Certainly, I think we will. One final comment is that certainly in all our discussions since September 11th, and during other difficulties, we have been impressed by the leaders of all the various faith communities. They have been absolutely intent to make sure that what might be hostility and tension in other parts of the world does not overflow into this country. What we are concerned is about extremists who are outside those faiths and who actually have an interest in there being tension, but overall, particularly the leaders of the Muslim faith, Jewish faith, Hindu faith and the Sikh community, they have all worked with us with that same intent of making sure that good community relations in this country are preserved. We value that.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

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