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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 207-219)




  207. Good afternoon. This is a public meeting and is being televised. I wonder whether you would briefly introduce yourselves. We have a CV from all of you but, for the transcript, I think it would be a good idea.

  (Mr Pollock) I am David Pollock. I am a member of the Executive Committee of the British Humanist Association and incidentally a member of the board of the Rationalist Press Association. I have been active in the humanist movement in a voluntary capacity for about 40 years.
  (Ms Stinson) I am Hanne Stinson. I am the executive director of the British Humanist Association, since December last year. I have been a humanist all my life but not involved in the organisation before then.
  (Mr Wood) I have been an atheist all my life and I have been the executive director of the National Secular Society for six years. I have done a fair amount of campaigning in both the European Parliament and the Royal Commission for the reform of the House of Lords, for example.
  (Dr Nash) I am Dr David Nash, a senior lecturer in history at Oxford Brooks University. I am also author of a book and a number of articles on the history of blasphemy in Britain.

  208. Some of you have already sent written evidence in, for which we thank you very much. We know that Mr Pollock has been listening to our deliberations on previous occasions. Could I ask one preliminary question? Last Thursday at St Martin's, there was an event. I have had correspondence about it and I think it would be only fair to ask you whether you have any comments on what happened. If you have not, we will accept that but if you have any comments we would be very pleased to hear them.
  (Ms Stinson) As we are informed that a tape of that event may well be going to the CPS, it would not be appropriate for us to comment.

  209. That is what I heard and that is why I put the question in the way that I did.
  (Mr Wood) The objective was to draw attention to what we saw as being the absurdity of the blasphemy law.

  210. I am not going to pursue the matter any further. We are equally interested in the views of both organisations, so you can take it in turns but certainly we want to hear everybody on all these subjects. Blasphemy can take many forms but is generally believed to be the only criminal offence where the Church of England is the perceived victim. Should the law be amended so as to provide protection for other Christian groups and other faiths? If so, how? Should it be repealed? If not, why not?
  (Dr Nash) The common law of blasphemous libel should be repealed without delay. It is an antiquated piece of legislation—

  211. Forgive me: it is not legislation; it is common law.
  (Dr Nash) Indeed. It was intended to preserve the peace and national security of the realm and has in the past been used against those critical of religion and those on the fringes of the Christian religion itself. The situation that this law originally addressed no longer applies and has not applied in Britain for the best part of a century. Those who now fall foul of the law are writers and artists rather than religious radicals. They generally tend to not intend the crime of which they are accused. This indicates that blasphemy is a peculiar species of libel, where the offence is entirely in the eye of the beholder. This is emphasised in the last case law, the famous Gay News case, which removed the decency test which had operated since 1883. This case also established that the law was not related to breach of the peace and the prosecution henceforth has merely to prove the fact of publication. Thus, in a society which has largely become tolerant of religious difference, the law in this instance has become more draconian. It is often said that the law is a dead letter because we live in an increasingly secular society and the Home Office has tended to believe this for some 70 years. The very existence of this Committee indicates that religion is becoming more important and is taking a greater share of public space in modern society. It would be sensible to say that the offence of blasphemy encourages feelings of offence incompatible with the state's desire to be theologically even handed. In short, it is a dangerous tool that would be reached for by the litigious and the unscrupulous. Also, its current status as a unique species of protection for one branch of Christianity is indefensible in the modern, pluralist world.

  212. That is a strict answer to the question but it does not answer the other part of what we have asked. Granted that it has all those defects, is there anything else that you think ought to be done about this area of law?
  (Dr Nash) Clearly if the law is bankrupt, there are two options. There is either the option of extension or abolition. We certainly believe that the issue should be one of abolition. Extension is something that the Home Office has looked at on a number of occasions, once 70 years ago and again in 1985. On both occasions, the problems were considered to be insuperable. Extending the law was considered to be unwise, unworkable and counter productive. Clearly one of the most important problems in this area is the issue of the definition of religion and precisely how this is to be addressed.
  (Mr Wood) I would like to draw the Committee's attention to just how rare blasphemy is in usage in western democracies. Norway, Spain, Sweden and the US no longer make blasphemy an insult to religious belief. In five other countries, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands, laws prohibiting insult to religion have in recent years been narrowly interpreted and rarely applied. I have taken that information from an Austrian case, the Otto Preminger case. Neither are we aware, from having made extensive inquiries, of any attempt to privilege more than one religion in a western democracy as blasphemy. I believe that that is totally impractical.

  213. Have you looked at all at the laws in Commonwealth countries which have an English origin, because you will find that that situation does not apply in Canada, Australia and many other Commonwealth countries which have used mainly the Australian expedient—to some extent, the Indian expedient—and India itself.
  (Mr Wood) I have not.

  214. You might like to do so because it may be that you will be able to enlighten us on whether you disagree with the way they have done it as well.
  (Mr Wood) Indeed.
  (Ms Stinson) We feel particularly that the blasphemy law is a fundamental question of freedom of speech. We also notice that the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights see the law as potentially in breach of Article 10 on freedom of expression, of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Law Commission have also pointed out that almost every offence that might be covered by the blasphemy laws is an offence under another law. The only exception to that would seem to be the publication of material without its public display and/or without that material being likely to cause a breach of the peace. That seems to be the only area that is exclusively within the blasphemy law. We agree completely with everything that has been said about extending to other religions. That is unworkable because of the difficulty in defining religion. We recognise that a number of people may be apprehensive about the effect of a repeal because they feel it might precipitate a flood of blasphemy and an assault on their beliefs. We do not think that is right. We think the effect of the law in that sense is marginal, even if it is sporadic and unpredictable, and the fears of the minority should not influence the law in this way. Any effect that it may have in that way is bound to be transitory and probably very brief.
  (Mr Pollock) The Law Commission in their 1985 report, paragraph 244, rejected the argument from the apprehensive minority.

  Chairman: We have now received the supplementary paper that you sent us about section two of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act. I am not going to ask you any questions about that but we have it and it is very much a matter that we are proposing to consider. Thank you for your views on that.

Lord Avebury

  215. Can the witnesses say anything about the right to bring private proceedings? I was under the impression that after the Whitehouse episode, either under the Prosecution of Offences Act or in some other way, it was no longer possible for an individual like Mrs Whitehouse to bring proceedings. I am told I am wrong about that and I would like to obtain your views, whether you think somebody such as Mrs Whitehouse could still take the sort of action that she did.
  (Mr Pollock) I do not know what the state of the law is. So long as blasphemy survives as an offence, private prosecutions should not be brought because it is an open invitation to people with eccentric views to create a great deal of difficulty for people who are comparatively in the mainstream.

  216. Do you think anything has changed since the Gay News case?
  (Mr Pollock) As to the facts of the matter, I cannot comment.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

  217. What other harm do you think the law of blasphemy does? You have all mentioned various aspects of this but fundamentally what harm is done by it?
  (Mr Pollock) The harm it does is that it does to a small extent inhibit freedom of speech, as for example the European Court of Human Rights upholding the British Board of Film Classification's ban on that video on vicious practices. More important, it is a political minefield. There are very few mines in it but who knows when one is going to go off when you tread incautiously?
  (Mr Wood) I do not think we should regard the fact that the last person prosecuted did not happen to go to prison to be in itself an indication that the effects of people being convicted are entirely benign, because I have heard on several occasions that the editor of Gay News, as a result of all the strain of the trial and trying to keep the magazine going at the time that this expensive process went through, had his life curtailed as a result of that. Some of my predecessors in the free thought movement, G W Foote and others, where admittedly there was hard labour as well involved in their imprisonment, had their lives ruined and the length of their lives was curtailed as a result of the punishment they received.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  218. I have a great deal of sympathy with the line you have taken about the blasphemy law. That is quite similar to the paper that we are receiving from the Church of England. I appreciate also this whole debate is about freedom. I was an atheist about sport as a child because of eyesight and physical coordination but I have been turned into an agnostic about it by having spawned a brilliant cricket playing son. If I had not spawned him, I might still be an atheist about sport and therefore regard as a total waste of time what goes on in many cases on Saturdays and the need for laws to protect the public, to ensure that sport goes on. On that basis, is there not a case—I am not sure in my own mind whether it should be abolition or extension—for saying that even if one rejects what religious activity means, but I would still want to have the theoretical protection of a humanist funeral, if one wants to keep hold of freedom, is there not a case for saying that even if one rejects what religious activity is about in the same way that I might say that playing football means nothing, there ought to be some means of protecting that kind of activity? I am trying to argue the case for the sake of clarity.
  (Mr Wood) As far as the humanist funeral is concerned or any other, we will come back to that perhaps in the context of the Ecclesiastical Courts' Jurisdiction. Clearly, we do not want to see any kind of funeral interrupted and I do not think the existence or not of the blasphemy law has any direct bearing on that. As far as the blasphemy law is concerned, taking your analogy, we are going to have to come to the point when we move on to religious incitement that in a multicultural society there are so many different views that people have, so many different things that they hold important. Some of these are mutually exclusive. Therefore, it is not the way it was when blasphemy started, where the vast majority of the population all subscribed to the doctrines of the established church. One of the effects of that is that we are going to have to realise, as a society, that there are things going on that non-religious people find offensive that religious people do and vice versa, and we are going to have to realise that as long as there is no danger involved we have to say, "No, that is not for me. I am going to go away and leave it", unless there is an issue for public order or people are being physically threatened. It is a sign of our maturity as a society that we have to say, "No, we cannot go down the route of trying to pretend that nobody is going to be offended." Where do we stop? How many religions are we going to try and protect in this way? Are we going to have the courts involved in trying to establish the theological niceties of these hundreds of religions and the sects within the religions that disagree? It is a Pandora's box and we cannot go down that route. Freedom of speech and expression must mean that that route is absolutely inappropriate.

Baroness Richardson of Calow

  219. If I heard you right what you said was anybody has a right to say anything because everybody has a right not to listen.
  (Mr Wood) I did give some qualifications.

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