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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 435-439)




  435. May I welcome our witnesses. Thank you very much for agreeing to come and talk to us today. It is very important that we have your evidence and we look forward very much indeed to hearing from you. Welcome. You have had a copy of our questions and we will make sure that we cover all the points. Dr Horrocks, I assume you are leading the group of three. Is there a statement you would like to make to us? Is there something you would like to say to us before we start our questions?

  (Dr Horrocks) Only introductions, my Lord Chairman. I am Don Horrocks, I work for the Evangelical Alliance. I am responsible for their public affairs section, so I suppose if anyone is a professional here today on this subject it is me. My colleagues on either side—whom I have only just met this morning, so this is not a team participation—are Bishop Wayne Malcolm, who runs a large church in Walthamstow—you have his details—and Grant Masom, who is, if you like, just an ordinary pew member of a Baptist church in Buckinghamshire. I was asked by the clerk to bring along with me specifically representatives of the evangelical world who might represent some of the spectrum of thinking and also the view from the pew or the view from the pulpit, perhaps, rather than a professional view, so they would not be expert in the area. I am not claiming I am expert in the legal area either, but certainly I would not expect my colleagues here to be aware of all the historical aspects of the law relating to blasphemy. They are just telling it as they feel it and understand it.

  436. Thank you. That is very helpful to have that introduction. The question of what the law does or does not do under blasphemy will, I am sure, emerge during the course of questions. Perhaps I could start off the questioning and then hope that my colleagues will very quickly move in . As you know, we have two strands to our inquiry, first of all, the question as to whether the offence of blasphemy could be changed or abolished, and, secondly, whether there should or should not be a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. The first question is: Are there any other issues under the heading of religious offences( which is the title of our committee) which the Committee could or should examine? In particular, are there any issues in relation to offences arising out of religious discrimination?
  (Dr Horrocks) If I may make a preliminary comment. We do notice that there are two options there: amendment or abolition, and that is not the direction from which we are coming. We are not accepting that there are only two options here, and our case is different from that. We are recommending perhaps a slightly unusual position, but it is a position which we believe centres on retaining blasphemy law whilst we are willing to consider the possibility of a new law running alongside of religious hatred. We will defend and argue for that, but that is our position. First of all, I would observe that that seems a mutually exclusive, almost an already decided, either or.

  437. Perhaps I should make it clear, that is not so. The Committee is considering whether the law on blasphemy should be abolished or amended. It has not decided on those two alternatives. The third alternative is that it should remain. We have not yet as a committee even sounded out each other's views on that.
  (Dr Horrocks) Thank you. I thought that was worth stating at the beginning. Are there any issues in relation to offences resulting out of religious discrimination. We are aware of some tangential issues and I have noted one or two here. For example, we are aware that particularly in the area of local government there is the increasing discrimination against Christians for local projects, where there seems to be a requirement now for a wider base for Christian voluntary organisations. I could give an example in which I was involved in recently where a long tradition of Christian work involved in drug rehabilitation has almost been closed down by the local authority. The trustees are historically Christian and they have insisted that they take atheists on to their trustee board, which they cannot do because of their trust.

  438. Who is the "they" who have insisted?
  (Dr Horrocks) The local authority. That is a case in which I have recently been involved, and there are others. We are aware that funding is being made dependent on a broadening of religious representation or none at all. We feel that is discriminatory and that is an issue that I thought it was worth mentioning this morning. We are also aware—and I do not propose to go into this—that under the Equal Treatment Directive there are going to be all kinds of issues relating to religious ethos, relating to organisations where the ethos of an organisation—in our case Christian—needs to be preserved to keep its identity, and there is a suggestion that that ethos may come under threat as being seen as discriminatory in the future. We realise this has to go through the parliamentary process to be introduced into British law but I am raising it now because I can see that that has a future implication for religious offences, where, for example, suppose the Evangelical Alliance was required to employ a Muslim and we refused to do so, just raising that at this particular point. Other issues relate to areas where a religious conscience is important to us and yet there seems to be pressure, from sources such as the European Court of Human Rights, where human rights' legislation can seem restrictive for us. For example, again in the area of discrimination perhaps, sex discrimination, a recent decision in the European Court of Human Rights on transsexuality may require Christian ministers to marry people of the same sex. That would be a major problem for us and we see that, again, as opening religious organisations and groups to potential "criminalisation". I wanted to mention a few situations like that and those are the three headline ones that are on my mind at the moment.

  Chairman: Thank you. You have raised some fairly major issues. Perhaps we should pause there and see what questions the Committee have.

Lord Avebury

  439. I was wondering whether you could give us the name of the local authority which you cited.
  (Dr Horrocks) I could do so. I would be willing to do that if permission was obtaned. Could I speak to you later over that? There is an issue involved.

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