Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia

  1.  The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) has monitored and reported on offences against religious as well as racial minorities in the European Union. It is part of the EUMC's explicit remit to monitor and report on anti-Semitism in particular, as laid out in the EC Regulation on which the Centre is based.

  2.  In the wake of 11 September 2001 the EUMC identified both Jewish and Muslim communities and individuals in the European Union as particularly vulnerable. Therefore, the EUMC has monitored and reported on offences and discrimination against these religious minorities in all EU member states. In particular, this has included a comprehensive monitoring exercise on anti-Islamic reactions after 11 September, with the final report published on 23 May 2002. A comparable report on anti-Semitic offences in the EU, especially in the context of the escalation of the crisis in the Middle East, will be published in September.

  3.  The EUMC's report on anti-Islamic reactions found increased hostility and a prolonged upsurge of both verbal and physical attacks on Muslim communities and individuals throughout Europe. The EUMC's fundings show that religious offences and discrimination are becoming an increasingly serious problem that our legal system must be able to tackle.

  4.  The EUMC's focus on both racial and religious minorities is derived from a broad definition of racism and xenophobia which is also the basis of the proposed Council Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia, of which an amended draft was considered in the EU Select Committee on 26 June. The original draft prepared by the European Commission contained the following definition: "racism and xenophobia" shall mean the belief in race, colour, descent, religion or belief, national or ethnic origin as a factor determining aversion to individuals or groups". While this definition has now been withdrawn from the proposal, religion remains included in the scope of the Framework Decision.

  5.  The EUMC is content with the general inclusion of religion in the broader definition of racism and xenophobia and does not advocate the agreement of a fixed list of acknowledged faiths. As in the case of the definition of "race", the definition of "religion" can safely be left to the courts. Such openness and flexibility is possible under our common law approach.

  6.  In my own experience as a former senior Commissioner at the CRE and Chair of the CRE's Legal Strategy Committee I have dealt with a number of specific instances of discrimination against Muslims in the UK where prosecution proved difficult (at all stages of the legal system, be it police, CPS or the courts) because of a gap in UK law. In all cases I felt that a legal provision against religious discrimination would have provided the basis for a more consistent, fair and just way of handling these cases.

  7.  The current UK law is inconsistent and the source of unequal protection of different religious groups. While Jews and Sikhs are covered by the Race Relations Act in so far as they are recognised as ethnic groups, other religious groups receive no protection.

  8.  Likewise, the UK law is different depending on the geographical area where a case is tried: Northern Ireland has criminal and civil law against incitement to religious hatred and religious discrimination. No such protection is available on the mainland.

  9.  These inconsistencies lead to unequal protection. For example, Muslims can only receive protection if it can be proved that an offence (criminal or civil) against them was actually directed against them as Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, not as Muslims. This leaves converts with no protection at all. The absolute primacy of race is also increasingly irrelevant in a social and political context in which, as the EUMC's report has clearly shown, Muslims are being regarded as the new public enemies, regardless of their nationality, race or ethnicity. It is the visible signs of being Muslim, ie specific clothes and dress codes that trigger hostilities, not the colour of someone's skin or their language or accent.

  10.  With regards to civil law, legislation against religious discrimination is due to be brought in by 2003 under the EC Employment Directive. This required extension of our anti-discrimination provisions provides an opportunity to achieve an overall consistent equality framework, in which the provisions under the Employment Directive are extended to fields beyond employment, eg education, goods, facilities and services, in line with the Race Relations Act. This would be essential to ensure that different religious groups are enabled to live as well as work as equals in our society.

  11.  Religious offences and discrimination must be outlawed on the basic principle of equal protection under the law of all people. Everyone has the right to live free from fear and harm as well as the right to equality of opportunity. Our legal framework must be designed in such a way to ensure this. People must not be abused or disadvantaged for their faith, which many consider to be an important part of their identity.

  12.  It is essential to keep in mind that we must legislate against acts, not against prejudice. Any act that causes, or is likely to cause, harm to someone because of a factor that distinguishes them from others, such as race, religion, sex etc, must be outlawed as it violates the main principle of equality.

  13.  I propose to the Committee that it deals with religious offences in a consistent manner that brings together the current proposals in civil law—ie outlawing religious discrimination in employment and beyond—and the current proposals relating to criminal law under the proposed council Framework Decision. It is important that these attempts at legislative reform are not undertaken in a piecemeal fashion but that the Committee looks at the wider framework for equal protection under the law. This must include a consideration of the provisions in Northern Ireland. Legislative provisions must complement each other and be clear and consistent. Legislative action also needs to take into account the relevance of proposed measures in relation to the likelihood of their use. For example, anti-discrimination provisions under civil law are widely used and regarded as important legal but also policy and public awareness raising instruments. By contrast the criminal law provision of incitement to racial hatred has rarely been used. Therefore, Parliament must be aware of the signals it might send in proposing one, but not the other. Equal protection against discrimination under civil law will be very important to religious groups that have not been able to benefit from the Race Relations Act.

8 July 2002

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