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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 251-259)




  251. Can I welcome our two witnesses. It is very nice to see you. I am sorry I have kept you all waiting outside but it is the last meeting before the recess and I was just doing some admin before we all disperse. I wonder whether although we have got CVs you would like to introduce yourselves so we have that on the record. We are also on the television so just be warned about that.

  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) Dr Peter Sedgwick, Assistant Secretary of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility of the Archbishops' Council.
  (Mr Slack) Stephen Slack, Head of the Legal Office of the Archbishops' Council and Chief Legal Adviser to the General Synod as well.

  252. We have circulated for you a few questions and of course they derive from the material that was sent in to the Select Committee. The first of them is about the two strands of our inquiry, namely the amendment or abolition of long-standing offences and the possible introduction of the new offence of inciting religious hatred. We would like to ask you whether there are any other issues under the heading of "religious offences", not discrimination but offences, which the Committee ought to examine and any issues in relation to offences that arise out of discrimination rather than discrimination itself? I do not know whether you would like to address that.
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I think, my Lord Chairman, our feeling is that the scope of your Committee is pretty wide anyway looking at incitement to religious hatred and blasphemy. The question of discrimination, as you pointed out in your introduction, is different from offences of discrimination. I do not think that we would want to raise any issues that arise out of offences of discrimination. It has been argued that incitement to religious hatred is the final end of a position that begins with discrimination. I have seen arguments around that in the Lords, but I am not persuaded that it is actually profitable to take a wider view.

  253. Right. Is there anything else in our first question which you wanted to comment on?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I do not think so, no.

  254. One of the things at some stage that we would like to know is in the paper we were sent there is, to my mind, a suggestion that there should be two bites at the legislative cherry, that we should try incitement to religious hatred in some form or another and then see whether we repeal blasphemy and blasphemous libel and so on. To be honest, I do not think there is the luxury of getting two bites at this cherry. Would you be prepared to accept that we ought to go ahead and make a decision on both of them at the same time?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) Chairman, with reluctance we would accept that. The feeling of Lambeth Palace and elsewhere would be very much that they would prefer and we would prefer to see legislation and the legislation in force before abolition or repeal took place, but if, as you are suggesting, that luxury does not arise, then our fall-back position certainly would be that we would go for a law on incitement to religious hatred. In other words, I think you read us correctly that our preference would be for a series of steps, but if that is not possible then I think we would accept that it would be better to have a replacement than none at all.

  255. Would you also just tell me this: in the 2001 Act there is Section 39 which is adding religious dimensions to a fairly substantial number of other offences on the same lines as racial aggravation was put in in 1998. Some of those, for instance harassment, are pretty wide and I do not think that we have really plumbed some of the implications of these things. Have you thought about this at all?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) It would certainly be the easiest way to add religion to the racial aggravation. I recognise that a lot of the racially aggravated offences that were set up in the 1998 Act have not, so far as I know, been tested out in prosecution. There have not been many cases that have been brought, so to some extent it is an unknown area. Our preference for the position that was adopted in the original Anti-Terrorism Bill was that it was simple and clear to understand. I do not know whether you want to add anything to it.
  (Mr Slack) My Lord, I think this area falls within question 7, but I am quite happy to address it now if that would be convenient.

  Chairman: Leave it until question 7 then, you are quite right. Lord Avebury?

Lord Avebury

  256. Referring to your answer about Lambeth Palace preferring the two-bite solution, would you agree that during the Anti-Terrorism Act the two Bishops who did speak both said that they personally would accept that the incitement to religious hatred was—and I am not trying to put words into their mouths—like a quid pro quo for the abolition of blasphemy.
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I read the speeches again last night, my Lord, and that is certainly what they did say. I had a conversation with the Bishops of Southwark and Birmingham after they had spoken and I think that is a fair representation of what they said, yes.

  257. When you said that Lambeth Palace took the view it would be preferable for the two-stage solution that might be a view not shared by the Church of England as a whole and it is certainly one that has not been put to the Synod.
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) I would not want to distinguish between Lambeth Palace and the Bench of Bishops, but I think what the Archbishop would be suggesting is that there will be fair numbers of members of the Church of England who attach quite a lot of importance to seeing some legislation in place and that is why the two-step solution was suggested, reflecting the views of Church members, but you are undoubtedly right that some bishops have suggested that a quid pro quo would be acceptable.

  258. Every since the attempt at legislation in 1995 there has been no official position of the Church of England, am I not right? Following that legislation the Archbishops set up a committee to examine the abolition of the law of blasphemy but it did not come to any conclusions.
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) The document Offences Against Religion and Worship would remain the position, the one that the Bishop of London drew up in the mid-1980s. That would still be the position from which we would argue and that of course suggested extending the law of blasphemy offence to other religions. That of course is now some 15 years old.


  259. You are not still suggesting that, are you?
  (Revd Dr Sedgwick) No, I am not suggesting that at all. I am simply answering Lord Avebury as to what was the position.

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