The House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences today published a detailed analysis of the law relating to religious offences.

The report examines old common law offences, including blasphemy, and statutory offences like the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860, and considers whether there is a case for repealing them, leaving them unchanged, or modernising them.

The Committee also considered the case for creating an offence of incitement to religious hatred, analogous to the existing offence of incitement to racial hatred. This had first been proposed by the Government in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill in 2001 and was revived in the Religious Offences Bill (a Private Member's Bill) in 2002.

The new offence would remedy the anomaly that some religions receive protection under race relations legislation while others do not, and would discourage extremists from using the pretext of religion to pursue a racist agenda.  But the Committee is concerned about both the potential threat to freedom of expression and the risk that the standards of proof would need to be so demanding under the proposed legislation as to make it a difficult offence to prosecute.

Viscount Colville of Culross who chaired the inquiry, said:

"After extensive public consultation we have analysed the merits of all the options, but feel it is up to Parliament as a whole to decide how it wants to proceed.

"Religions play a vital role in our society and there should be a degree of protection equally available to all faiths, but there is no consensus among us on the precise form that that protection might take.

"The introduction of a Bill to deal with any, or all of these issues is likely to run into profound controversy, despite the pressure to take action on incitement to religious hatred."

The Committee also looked at the possibility of increasing maximum penalties for public order offences so that − through sentencing guidelines − aggravating factors could be taken into account when determining punishment of all convicted of offences motivated by hatred of vulnerable groups, not just racial or religious hatred.

The Committee noted that an opportunity to consider amending legislation on religious offences could present itself if the proposed European Council Framework Decision on combating Racism and Xenophobia is agreed. [p1/2]


1. The report follows an eleven-month inquiry by the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences under the Chairmanship of Viscount Colville of Culross.  The other members of the Committee were Lord Avebury; Lord Bhatia; Lord Clarke of Hampstead; Lord Grabiner; Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach; the Earl of Mar and Kellie; Baroness Massey of Darwen; Baroness Perry of Southwark; the Bishop of Portsmouth; Baroness Richardson of Calow; and Baroness Wilcox

2. The report is published by the Stationery Office: Report of the Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales, Session 2002-03, HL Paper 95-I, ISBN 010 400228 X, price £12.00.  The oral and written evidence received by the Committee is published in separate companion volumes: HL Paper 95-II (ISBN 010 400226 3: £21.50) and HL Paper 95-III (ISBN 010 400229 8: £13.00). The full text of the report will be available on the internet via  shortly after publication.

3. The possibility of creating an offence of incitement to religious hatred had been proposed by the Government in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill in 2001 and was revived in Lord Avebury's Religious Offences Bill (HL Bill 39 53/1) in 2002. This is available via [HL95-I].

4. Oral evidence was heard from a broad range of official and public opinion − the Attorney-General, the Home Office, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Police, Interfaith groups, Humanists, Secularists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. The Committee also received more than 500 letters and submissions from representative bodies and members of the public.

Further information from:

  • Clerk of the Committee, on 020 7219 5208

  • Press and Publicity Officer (Committees), on 020 7219 8659