Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-250)|
THURSDAY 18 JULY 2002
Bishop of Portsmouth
240. That is even better, as far as I am concerned!
(Mr Wood) I think it may mean some slight changes
to the law, especially hatred akin to violence, but particularly
that it should not be confined to religious groups or non religious
groups but also should be quite open to everyone.
241. I understand that.
(Mr Pollock) Could I suggest, Chairman, the sort of
way forward that we have begun to adumbrate in our own minds insofar
as we have criticised, fairly comprehensively, the drafting of
the Bill as it stands that the Home Office has produced? We think
that it might be possible to produce a stand-alone set of clauses
modelled in terms of religion or belief as in Article 9 of the
European Convention which might focus on the use of language or
behaviour that, in the judgment of a reasonable person, was in
all the circumstances likely to stir up hatred of a group of persons
characterised by their religion or belief, or to inhibit the exercise
of their rights under the Human Rights Act, in particular under
Article 9 which is the freedom of religion or belief rule. There
ought then to be a defence, we think, of justification which was
suggested by your colleague, Lord Lucas, in the Second Reading
debate. I think he talked about a defence on the grounds that
the action taken by the accused was reasonable in all the circumstances.
We would leave it to the lawyers to find a satisfactory way of
framing that, but we do see the need to cover legitimate criticism
of a religious group, whether it was enticement of children away
from their families by the Children of God or another such cult,
or the cover up of child abuse by their elders by the Jehovah's
Witnesses or whatever. Such speech should never be penalised or
run any risk of being penalised. We think if, in the end, the
Parliamentary draftsmen say it is impossible to draft any such
law, then we would prefer there not to be a law than that the
present flawed draft should go forward. Our disappointment, and
we realise that that would be as nothing compared with that of
most of the Muslim community, would be significantly mitigated
if the government pressed on rather faster with their laws against
discrimination on religious grounds. They are already moving on
in the area of employment and occupation as required by the European
Directive, but that leaves open wide areas, in particular for
example provision of services, where legislation could certainly
be brought forward more rapidly.
242. Would either of the two groups who are
represented here be prepared to give us some indication of how
a totally different approach might lead to a criminal offence
which would be able to be prosecuted in the courts? I entirely
accept that none of you are lawyers and it is a tough thing to
ask, but if we are going to reject the easy analogy which has
been adopted after the racial aggravation and now religious aggravation,
I think we ought to consider whether there is another way of doing
it and I wondered to what extent you could help us. Obviously
you cannot do it now.
(Mr Wood) I would be happy to seek to do that and
I think perhaps it would be better if the two organisations did
so, whether on the same document or not, separately.
Chairman: Please do, and I know that Dr Nash
has got, at any rate, legal friends who could help even if he
is not himself a lawyer. I think we would be genuinely most grateful
to you if you could help in this way.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead
243. We heard a way forward then which was a
bit of new ground. Could we ask the National Secular Society if
they in general agree with the drift of that new way forward?
(Dr Nash) I would simply say that we have now been
asked to look at what might be possible. I am not sure it would
be valuable to comment at this stage.
(Mr Wood) I would like to go away and think about
it again, and submit something more considered.
Chairman: There is no possible reason why you
should not do that, and we would be very grateful if you would.
The House rises for the summer recess fairly soon and we will
not be going back to this until the autumn so there is quite a
bit of time for you to do it, and I think that one of the things
that comes out of the material that we have been sent is that
the methodology that has been adopted, and Lord Avebury has only
really reflected what was in the Home Office's Bill, is not necessarily
the right way because of the nature of the thing that we are dealing
with which is not necessarily the same as race, and if there is
another route whereby we can deal with the mischief that I think
you all agree does exist, then we would be extremely interested
in seeing what thoughts you have about it.
Bishop of Portsmouth
244. I wonder if I could just make a comment
which is also a sort of question. I know that people will say,
"Well, there are people who are Church of England who will
do silly things and people in the Church of England who will do
more thoughtful things", but in this whole debate I have
before me the whole time the question of freedom and the right
kind of freedom, and I know for example that, in the rhetoric
about religious discrimination, the secularistwith a small
`s'agenda, basically people who are not faithful to the
freedoms that you four, or certainly you two, would stand for,
are using it to discriminate against some of the people that I
stand for. For example, I know a person who was being interviewed
for a job in a company and who was asked, "What conditions
would you like?", and he said "I would like Good Friday
and Christmas Day off" and the answer was, "I cannot
guarantee that", and the question came back, "If I were
a Muslim, Hindu or Jew or whatever, what would your response be?""Oh,
that is different". In this whole debate I have to be aware
of that kind of freedom as well and that makes this whole debate
for meand I suspect others around this tableeven
more complex. It is not as obvious as, shall we say, the broadsheet
press would make it out to be.
(Mr Wood) Were you suggesting that people would be
less or more accommodating to Church of England than they would
be for people of minority faith, just to be clear?
(Mr Wood) I suppose that is a functionI do
not support itof people not wishing to be discourteous
to those from what are often minority races as well, but I want
to bring an important point home here: I have done a huge amount
of work personally on the Employment Directive, including in Brussels
before it was ratified and here with the DTI before the consultation
went out, and what is a recurring theme that I find very difficult
is, in the strand of discrimination for religious purposes, the
volume of opposition from religious groups saying, "Yes,
we want this kind of legislation but, for goodness' sake, do not
have it applied to us". That we find absolutely breathtaking
and very upsetting indeed, so as the government is moving further
towards faith-based welfare, where public funds are going to be
used in employment of people in faith-based welfare, religious
organisations are seeking not to be bound by discrimination laws
and I think that is very sad.
246. But that may reflect probably a basic disagreement
which will be shared around this table about the post September
11th/post modern world: is it more religious or is it really religion
becoming more and more something of the past? I suspect, and this
is a comment dare I make, that this is going on nationally and
it is part of why this Select Committee exists.
247. Dr Nash, I am going to give you the last
word on this but can I just, before I do so, say that we did ask
this question about Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdictions
Act, and I am assuming the British Humanist Association's paper
is the answer you wish to give on that and you do not want to
add anything, at any rate at the moment?
(Mr Pollock) We do not.
(Mr Wood) We substantially agree with it but you did
ask about the internet. Unless I missed it, in your last question,
did you refer to the internet specially, and has that been answered
to your satisfaction?
248. Not yet, but I think Dr Nash wanted to
(Dr Nash) I was going to say in response to this issue
of why there are free speech concerns on this side of the table
that I am very conscious in reading this legislation and listening
to some of the arguments offered by yourselves around the table
that there is a model here of people producing material that is
liable to stir up religious hatred in a very active way and putting
this to people who become the potential victims of this. Now,
it is wholly right and proper that this Committee should be looking
at this issue and seeking a remedy, but what we have to remember
is that once such a remedy is on the statute book, then we have
to ensure that there are sufficient safeguards to prevent motivated
people from finding offence in material that is in our society
at large, and if we look at the history of the blasphemy rules
it is littered with individuals who have searched back through
the cultural products of our age and previous ages to find material
that they may well find offensive. My earnest hope is we do not
make this mistake again.
249. Mr Wood, there was something you wanted
(Mr Wood) Only about the internet.
250. That is something we are very interested
(Mr Wood) We think that it is a passive medium, and
I wonder whether something quite simple like requiring people
to press a button to say, "Yes, I acknowledge when I go past
this point I may find something that I think is offensive"
would be quite a neat way of doing it, and not so draconian that
we would be pushing sites to go abroad to get round the law.
(Dr Nash) It is also worth bearing in mind that the
internet is for many people a source of information about religion,
and we would have to be extremely careful that particular religious
sects do not find a legal way of silencing or removing from the
public domain nominal or factual information about themselves
simply because they find it offensive or inconvenient. There are
instances in the United States, for example, where a religious
group has closed down an internet site because it was containing
factual information about that religion, so we have to bear in
mind that the internet is a source of information much as print
culture is, and we would certainly not indict print culture per
se for the message it carries.
Chairman: I am going to draw this session of
the Select Committee to a close because I made a promise that
we would never go on for more than an hour and a half, and I do
so by way of thanking all four of you very much indeed for the
trouble you have taken in preparing the answers to our questions
and supplementaries. You have given us a great deal to think about.
I think you may possibly be going to offer us a little bit more
when you have had a go at this possible criminal offence, or sketch
the way in which you think it might possibly be formulated, because
that will help us very much, but already you have done a great
deal to contribute to this difficult debate and I would like to
thank, on behalf of the Committee, all four of you very much indeed.