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Religious Hate Speech

Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986 remains in force, and if so, what is the basis in statute for the offence of religious hate speech.

My Lords, Part 3A of the Public Order Act 1986 relates to hatred against persons on religious or sexual orientation grounds. Section 29J provides that Part 3A should not be interpreted in a way that prohibits discussion or encouragement to cease practising of particular religions or beliefs. There is no criminal offence in the UK of hate speech.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, I fear that we are on our way to losing our freedom of speech in this area. I repeat a question I put a year ago, which the Government refused to answer: namely, whether a Christian who proclaims that Jesus is the only Son of the one true God can be arrested for hate speech if a Muslim feels insulted and complains to the police. By the same token, can a Muslim be arrested for preaching the supreme divinity of Allah if a Christian takes offence?

Secondly, can the Government assure your Lordships that they will not follow a new judgment from the Strasbourg court, which upholds Austria’s criminalisation of a lady who said that Muhammad was a paedophile? Or are we to have a new blasphemy law that prohibits discussion of Islam?

My Lords, the noble Lord asked me a hypothetical question in an unspecified situation. The CPS and the police agreed definition of hate crime is used for the purposes of identifying and flagging only. The definition is: any criminal offence which is perceived to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s actual or perceived disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity. When flagged as a hate crime, the police will be satisfied that an offence has been committed and will then investigate evidence in support of the appropriate charge, as well as the aggravated element of hostility. It would not be appropriate for me, as I have just said, to confirm whether this is an example which would constitute a hate crime. That would be an operational decision both of the police and the CPS based on the specific circumstances.

On the Austrian situation, the judgment does not raise any issues which require any further consideration by this Government at this time.

I was hoping that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, was going to tell us that, like Mr Farage, he now found UKIP so awful that he, too, was leaving its ranks. Section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986, which was added, I understand, by this House during the passage of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, states:

“Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents”.

In the light of those references to “insult or abuse”, do the Government intend to reconsider the appropriateness of those two words in Section 29J in the current climate, which seem to conflict to some degree with the objective of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and its protection for individuals from hatred and the fear of violence and harassment?

My Lords, we need to be careful to balance the two issues. I know why the noble Lord picked “insult” and “abuse” because they sound quite strong words, but insult and abuse and hatred are quite different things. I take the noble Lord’s point: on the face of it, they seem quite strong words.

My Lords, I was the police spokesperson after the 7 July bombings in 2005 in London when 52 innocent people lost their lives. I was asked in a press conference whether I felt that it was the result of Islamic terrorism. I said that I thought that the phrase “Islamic terrorism” was a contradiction in terms. I went on to say that I believe that the UK is a much better, more law-abiding country because we have a strong Muslim community. I believe that now as much as I did then. Does the Minister agree?

I do agree with the noble Lord that the conflation of Islamism and Islamic is widespread. Not only should we understand where the two terms come from—Islamism, of course, comes from the collapse of the Ottoman empire—but that Islam itself is a peaceful religion and Muslims in this country contribute to the variety and diversity of our country.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that all faiths should be treated equally, and does she deplore the present practice of resources going to those who shout the loudest? There are no comparative statistics on hate crime for different faiths.

I agree with the noble Lord that all religions should be treated equally. The premise of some of our hate crime legislation absolutely underpins that equality in society. No one should feel that hate should be meted out on them because of their religion, the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation or their disability.

Does my noble friend agree that there is now far too much hatred in the world, affecting all ages, such as the tragic incident that occurred recently with the Syrian refugee? The total pervasiveness of social media is an opportunity to spread hate in different directions. Will she comment on the approach that could be taken to tackle that particular challenge that we now have?

My noble friend raises an important question about the proliferation of hate crime online; of course, what is a crime offline should also be a crime online. We will be taking our online harms White Paper through Parliament shortly. He is absolutely right to point out the case of that poor Syrian boy, but I should also like to point out that sometimes out of such awful situations comes great kindness. I understand that the British public have raised a lot of funds for that family to support them through the terrible time that they have had.