(Lord Lester of Herne Hill had proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order bill, to extend the legislation on racial hatred to cover religious hatred. Earl Ferrers, Minister of State for the Home Office, cautioned against this proposal.)
Earl Ferrers: I rather fancy that we may be here for a long time and I do not want to truncate the opportunity for anyone to have their say. But it may be helpful if I put the Government's view at this stage.
The noble lord, Lord Lester, has drawn us into an area of great sensitivity and provided the opportunity for an interesting debate. It is an area of sensitivity in which our beliefs and our relationship with the church and the Almighty, and people's reactions to that, can all interact with the criminal law and the law of the land. We must tread with great care.
I agree with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York when he asked what message would be conveyed if we passed amendments such as this. He said that legislation invites expectations and we should not encourage hopes which may not materialise. I respect his caution in that respect.
Of course we all respect the importance of ensuring that the courts can deal effectively with those individuals who try to incite hatred against others. The Government utterly condemn any attack or criminal act which is motivated by such hatred. We are well aware of the effect which such crimes can have both on the victims and on the confidence of the communities of which they are a part.
However, we are not convinced that the amendments proposed by the noble lord, Lord Lester, reflect the principal mischief of inciting hatred because of a person's race. I fear that the amendments would be difficult to operate without giving rise to problems which might be just as great as those which they seek to solve.
The amendments seek to extend the current offence of incitement to racial hatred under Section 17 of the Public Order Act 1986 by making the offence also cover hatred on the grounds of religious belief. At the same time Amendment No. 159 would abolish the existing common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.
In effect that would enact the recommendation of the minority of the Law Commission in its 1985 report Offences Against Religion and Public Worship. In 1985 the majority of the Law Commission recommended that the blasphemy laws should be repealed and should not be replaced by anything. The majority of respondents to the Law Commission's earlier working paper on this subject seem to have favoured retaining the blasphemy laws.
The Government did not accept either of the Law Commission's recommendations on that occasion. The strong views which were and are held on all sides were illustrated by the fact that, very unusually, as the most reverend Primate reminded us, a minority of two out of the five commissioners made their own separate recommendation. In our view it would be a mistake to legislate on a matter such as this in the absence of a wider consensus as to the best way forward.
If anything, our view has been strengthened by the increased sensitivity of this subject which has been caused by the subsequent controversy over the publication of The Satanic Verses and the issuing of the fatwa against Mr. Salman Rushdie, to which my noble friend Lord Renfrew referred - and by which he was so offended, as were many others.
It is already an offence under Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 to incite hatred against a group of people on the grounds of their colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origin. The courts have held that some religious groups - including Sikhs and Jews - are also ethnic groups and are therefore covered by that definition.
Protection against incitement to religious hatred has now been sought by some other groups which are not ethnic groups, particularly by the Moslems. However, we are not aware of any evidence to suggest that there is a significant problem on the mainland of Great Britain either of discrimination or of incitement to hatred on the grounds of a person's religious beliefs as opposed to his racial or ethnic background, where there is a problem. The position in Northern Ireland is, of course, different and that is reflected in the law there.
The evidence which has been presented to us suggests that understandable distress is created when adverse comments are made about particular religious beliefs or religious practices. But that is not the same as incitement to hatred. And, what is more important, it is something which is faced by all religious groups, living in what is regrettably becoming a largely secular society.
Our institutions, leaders, and beliefs may all be held up for criticism or ridicule in ways which cause offence. There is plenty of evidence of that. It is a fact of life which I personally find less than glorious but that is the price we pay for living in a society which respects freedom of expression. It would, I believe, be very dangerous if we were to start to curtail our freedom of expression on the grounds that the views expressed may be offensive to some.
The existence of the current law of blasphemy, and the special protection it gives to the beliefs of the established Church, may certainly be criticised. But it is worth bearing in mind that the law does not punish the simple expression of views which are considered to be offensive, blasphemous or heretical by believing Christians, and the law does not protect the Church of England from criticism or even derision. Indeed, the scope of the law of blasphemy is so restricted that only one successful prosecution, as the noble lord reminded us, has been brought in the past 70 years, and that was a private prosecution.
Governments have held to the view that we should only begin to curtail freedom of expression when there is the likelihood, and intention, that the result is likely to produce a threat to public order. We do not think that it would be appropriate to change the law in order to punish those who merely offend other people's religious sensibilities.
Even if we were persuaded that there was a significant problem of incitement to religious hatred, any proposal to bring religious belief within the scope of the Public Order Act would come up against the difficult question of the definition of religion. Race is a relatively simple matter. It is a matter of fact. People are what they are because of what they are. But religion is not nearly so simple. It is a matter of personal belief and personal assent. Clearly, mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism are major world religions, and they would be protected under the amendment.
But how would we offer protection to some smaller belief groups such as, for example Jains, Baha'is, Farsees and small sects of major religions; for example, some of the independent Christian groups such as the House Church movement without at the same time protecting extreme sects and cults from the severe criticism, and even attacks, which they may rightly deserve? Members of the Committee need only think back to the siege at Waco in Texas which centred around a religious group, or the mass suicide by Bob Jones and his followers in Guyana, to appreciate the potential difficulties.
There are other minority cults which advocate what amounts to the sexual abuse of children as an alleged religious practice. If the noble lord's amendment were accepted' anyone who sought to write a critical leading article on the anti-social beliefs or criminal practices of such groups might be caught. I think that that would really not be desirable.
The Government are in discussion with different faith communities on these difficult problems. Only recently my right honourable friend the Home Secretary discussed them at some length with a group of Moslems. We will continue to listen and we are ready to look at evidence which demonstrates that there is a significant problem of inciting religious hatred as opposed to offending against religious sensibilities. But at the moment I am bound to say that the Government see too many practical difficulties. I agree with the most reverend Primate - too little evidence of a real problem to justify advising the Committee to accept the amendment.
Last updated 17 May 1997
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