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

Memorandum from The Council of Christians and Jews

  1.  With respect to the proposed creation of a new offence of incitement to religious hatred it is important to consider the present legal context. A new offence will only be justified if it can be clearly shown that current legislation is inadequate.

2.  The current legal framework is provided by the Public Order Act of 1986 and the Protection of Harassment Act 1997. It is also important to consider issues pertaining to Freedom of Speech, which are usefully addressed in the Education (no 2) Act of 1986, with regard to universities and colleges in England and Wales.

  3.  The Public Order Act of 1986 at S.4 (1) states that the use of threatening abusive or insulting words or behaviour constitute an offence if they are intended to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence or give the impression that such violence will be used. At 5.5 (2), the lesser offence of harassment is defined in terms of similar behaviour intended to caused harm and distress, even if there is no reason to anticipate actual physical violence.

  4.  Part III of the 1986 Act is particularly relevant to the remit of the Select Committee, as it creates a number of offences in relation to racial hatred, including at S.19 an offence in relation to publishing or distributing written material. At S.18.1 it is made clear that in respect to stirring up racial hatred, the prosecution does not have to prove intention on the part of the defendant, only that having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up by his actions.

  5.  Racial Hatred is broadly defined at S.17 as "hatred against a group of persons defined by colour, race, nationality of ethnic or national origins".

  6.  The question, therefore, is whether S.17 should be amended to include "religion", as an adequate defining term for the "group of persons" concerned without reference to other considerations.

  With respect to anti-Semitism, which is a central concern of The Council of Christians and Jews, in its modern forms it tends to be ethnic or racial rather than religious. Jews are targeted as a people, regardless of whether they are religious, secular, or even members of a different faith community, and promoting anti-Semitism is treated as an offence within the terms of Part III of the 1986 Act. It is difficult therefore, to see any further protection being afforded to Jews by the proposed amendment. Deflamatory and distorted versions of Jewish religious material do sometimes figure in anti-Semitism literature, but they are usually cited in a racist—rather than religious context.

  7.  With regard to Islamophobia, the situation is rather different, as Islam is a focal point of animosity and abusive comment, albeit that Muslims are also targeted under all of the categories listed in the 1986 definition of racial hatred. In these circumstances an amendment to the definition cited at point five above might well be helpful. Following s.18.1, it would be clear that the offence would be confined to a situation, when, having regard for all of the circumstances, racial hatred is likely to be stirred up by the utterances of writings in question. This would exclude academic debate and the reasonable expression of critical opinions in the media, so guaranteeing the freedom of speech that is the defining feature of democratic society. Maintaining crucial distinction should be no more difficult than in other racial hatred offences defined in the 1996 legislation.

  Questions arising from the above:

  1.  What are the sources of current anti-Semitism and how seriously does it affect the Jewish community?

  2.  Would the creation of a new offence of incitement to religious hatred be of assistance in combating anti-Semitism and similar prejudices encountered by other faith communities?

  3.  What is the role of law in addressing matters of hatred and prejudice?

  4.  How would one define incitement to religious hatred with due regard for the importance of freedom of speech?

  5.  How would such legislation accommodate the polemical thrust of the sacred scriptures of different faith communities?

  6.  Would reasoned academic criticism of religious traditions and behaviour be compromised by the proposed legislation?

June 2002

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