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Mr. Gummer: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I find myself in some difficulty being in the same Lobby as him, but he will perhaps make this point. It is very difficult for many of us to believe that blasphemy, which is technically about the insulting of the deity, can be possibly lined up with the tenets of the Church of England, as those are difficult to discern, and most members of the Church of England disagree about them gravely.

Dr. Harris: That is a private argument—or indeed now a public argument—between the right hon. Gentleman and people who may believe in the same God but have different interpretations of that God.

As I was saying, there is the problem of catalysing private prosecutions. That has an impact on the livelihood of people seeking to work in the arts, theatre, literature and publishing.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Rather ungenerously, I was tempted to say that the reason the hon. Gentleman is not attracted by slippery slope arguments is that there is no depth to which he will not fall—but to say that would be unkind and unnecessary. However, my point is that he seems to be making a case around the idea that it is a bad thing to discourage theatre directors and others from insulting, upsetting or offending people. I ask him whether it is, indeed, a bad thing to discourage people from insulting, upsetting or offending people—because that seems to be what he is saying.

Dr. Harris: People will buy tickets if they want to watch the sort of stuff that is put on. That is, I think, called the free market, which I know the hon. Gentleman supports. I certainly do not think—and I did not think that he did—that we should start to use the criminal law or criminal offences to describe what art, literature or publishing is acceptable. That might have happened in the 17th century, but I would like to feel that I exist in the 21st century, and I hope that one day the hon. Gentleman will see that that is an inappropriate form of censorship—and has been for at least the past two centuries.

The Church of England has made it clear that it does not have any reasons in principle to oppose the abolition of these offences. The then Bishop of Oxford made it clear in the debate on the abolition of blasphemy laws in November 2005 that the Church of England did not take that view; indeed, it argued that it was only a question of timing.

That point is of some relevance to the history of repeal or abolition of these offences. The Law Commission recommended that in 1985. It was raised first, in recent times, in the House of Lords in 2001, during the passage of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, when there was a proposal for a religious hatred law. As a result of that debate, a Select Committee of the House of Lords on religious offences was set up under the chairmanship of Viscount Colville. It took evidence over a period of a year, including oral evidence on a number of occasions from various faith groups discussing not only religious hatred, but blasphemy and ecclesiastical Acts. There was then a debate in which it was made clear that the Church of England, in its evidence to that Select
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Committee, had argued not for retention of the blasphemy law but that religious hatred needed to be dealt with first. In February 2005, during the passage of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, I tabled an amendment to abolish blasphemy, and the Minister at the time, the present Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said that she opposed new clause 4 on the abolition of blasphemy

The argument was that we had to deal with religious hatred first. Well, religious hatred was dealt with two years ago. There was a settlement; it is done. People are protected from the incitement of hatred against them on the basis of their beliefs when intentional and threatening language or behaviour is used. Therefore, there is no longer an excuse for prevarication. The same point was made in November 2005 by the Bishop of Oxford—and also by the Bishop of Portsmouth, who both said that once religious hatred was sorted out it would be time to abolish the blasphemy law.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that gratuitously and grossly offensive material, of a sort that would never be tolerated or permitted against the Prophet Mohammed, is routinely published against the Christian religion?

Dr. Harris: It is not the case that attacks on the Prophet Mohammed would be covered by criminal law in this country, so the toleration of such things is a matter for individuals, and I am afraid this House is incapable of legislating on how offended people are when their beliefs—sincerely held, and sometimes sacredly held—are offended. As I think the hon. Lady would be the first to accept, it is not a role of the criminal law to protect offence taken to words against the Prophet Mohammed, and the same applies to the Christian religion.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): As a co-sponsor of the new clause, I say that the hon. Gentleman has hit on the real issue: this is not about the Church of England or even about Christianity, but about faith. If anyone’s faith is real and strong, it should not need or seek the support and defence of the secular courts.

Dr. Harris: I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I support the new clause, and I joined the hon. Gentleman, and the present Leader of the Opposition, in the Lobby in 2005, along with the late and lamented Robin Cook. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that our prime motivation in seeking to push this issue and to abolish this discriminatory and outdated piece of common law was the fact that we fundamentally believed that all faiths should be treated equally?

Dr. Harris: Indeed, and in my view all beliefs should be treated equally.

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7.15 pm

The final reason for seeking to abolish this law is its impact on our ability to conduct our affairs in terms of international human rights and international relations, and to criticise other countries’ uses of their blasphemy laws—for example, Sudan’s outrageous use of its blasphemy laws against a UK subject over the naming of a teddy bear. It would be much easier to say that that was unacceptable if we did not have our own, albeit less effective, version of a blasphemy law. The same applies in respect of offences of apostasy in countries such as Pakistan. We would also be in a position to argue against the extremist reaction to the Danish cartoons if we did not have an offence purporting to defend Christian sensibilities. The argument for abolition is clear, and I hope that the Government have moved from their previous position that the time is not right.

Because of the lack of time, it falls to me to say a brief word about amendment No. 231, which deals with homophobic hatred. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State agreed that it was right that a new offence of inciting homophobic hatred should be closer to the religious hatred end rather than the race hate end of the spectrum, in that such incitement would have to be intentional, and the provision should deal with threatening words and behaviour only. I welcome the fact that, true to his word, the Government are introducing an offence along those lines. We wanted to see that, because the clear mischief exists of people being attacked and hate being incited against them on the basis of their sexual orientation. Unlike religion, and more like race, sexual orientation is innate: it is not a matter of someone’s opinion; it is a part of their humanity and our common humanity, and it is right that people should be protected.

My view, which is reflected in one of the amendments, is that attacks on homosexuals involving an implication that they are paedophiles should be covered, and I hope that the Government will give more thought to that. There is a case for tightening the provision further by ensuring that the Attorney-General’s fiat—the decision that the Attorney-General makes to give consent to a prosecution—should have particular regard to article 10 of the European convention on human rights. Amendment No. 231 uses exactly the same language that the Government used in section 12(4) of the Human Rights Act 1998 when they called on courts to have particular regard to freedom of expression when considering issues concerning privacy law and the press. On that basis, I hope that the Government will give serious thought to amendment No. 231, and I commend new clause 1 to the House.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): I want to speak specifically to amendment No. 1. I should point out at the beginning that I am aware that the Government do not think that there is any need for this provision, but I shall develop the case that I think is necessary. It is my pleasure to speak to this cross-party ecumenical amendment, which basically aims to protect free speech, and I am delighted that many hon. Members have added their names to it. It is not a party political issue, as the list of names illustrates.

May I say at the outset that I would like to have a vote on this amendment when the time comes, with your indulgence, Mr. Speaker? The amendment is
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ecumenical because it was drafted with the help of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. The two Churches took the unusual step of making a joint submission to the Public Bill Committee. What excited their concern was a Government amendment, which became clause 107, to make it a criminal offence to incite hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. I am aware that some hon. Members disagree strongly with some of the teachings of England’s two largest denominations, but I hope that no one would accuse either of them of wanting to protect the right to incite hatred against anyone.

So why is anybody worried about the clause? Let me read from the Churches’ submission, which draws a comparison with identical provisions in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which criminalised incitement to religious hatred:

A similar distinction should be maintained in the field of sexuality. Sexual activity and lifestyle, as distinct from sexual orientation, are matters of choice and impinge on the public sphere. As such, they are subject to evaluation and criticism and the freedom to discuss them should be preserved.

The Churches’ submission goes on to refer to accepted Christian teaching about human sexuality, marriage and family, and asserts that it would be impossible for Christianity to be practised and taught without those convictions being widely and freely discussed within the Churches and wider society. They are also concerned that clause 107 may impinge on their basic freedom to practise their religion. We cannot ignore such a serious concern from two important national religious institutions.

Mr. Heath: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the chance to look at the Committee proceedings, but it was important to us all that we should balance the offence, which we feel it is right to put in place, with the defence that he has given of people’s non-threatening profession of faith, which falls outside the scope of the Bill. Does he not accept that amendment No. 231, which I would have liked to press to a Division if possible, would do what he wants to do and ensure that those of faith and others could express views that some might find abhorrent or offensive, but which were not threatening, without undermining the offence that we want to be created?

Jim Dobbin: I accept that the hon. Gentleman is supporting some of the evidence that I have put forward. Amendment No. 1 is about freedom of speech, and that is basically it.

The Churches went on to say:

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Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is arguing that people of faith should be allowed to use threatening words, and that their mere expression of them as faith should let them off under the clause.

Jim Dobbin: I disagree with my hon. Friend. I am not suggesting that at all. The main purpose of the amendment is merely to seek reassurance.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), has met some Christian groups and sought to assure them that infringing the freedom of speech and of religion is not the purpose of clause 107. However, without the necessary words in the Bill, concerns will remain. It is particularly worrying that a police officer or CPS lawyer who draws a comparison between religious hatred and homophobic hatred will see that free speech is specifically protected in one but not the other.

The joint Church submission also drew attention to the possible chilling effect on free speech, saying:

I shall list a few examples shortly.

The Churches welcomed the narrow focus of clause 107 on threatening words or behaviour that are used with the intention of stirring up hatred, but they pointed out that in earlier debates on incitement to religious hatred a further safeguard was considered necessary to protect freedom of expression. Section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986, as inserted by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, states:

The Churches have used that as a basis for drafting the amendment that I have tabled. However, the amendment is narrower and less far reaching, and the Churches have restricted the free speech protection to “discussion”, “criticism” and “antipathy”.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has twice said that the Churches have drafted the amendment, but they have not. I have checked with Lambeth and I can tell him that no one among the Church of England’s archbishops, bishops, house of clergy or house of laity—and I am a member of that latter body—has ever heard of it. It has been run past the lawyers, who said that it looked legal. That is the extent of the Churches’ drafting.

Jim Dobbin: When I talked about the Churches drafting the amendment, I said that they helped to draft it.

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Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman is concentrating quite heavily on the clause’s effect on the freedom of religious conscience. Does he agree that it is in the interests of society as a whole that we preserve the right to free speech? Should people not be able to express free opinions, whether or not they are religiously motivated in the way that he and I are?

Jim Dobbin: I have also made it clear that the amendment would be appropriate for the whole of society. The wording of amendment No. 1 is far milder than the form of words used in section 29J, which I quoted earlier and which the House was happy to insert in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.

Indeed, it is not just religious people who are worried that clause 107 could restrict free speech. Peter Tatchell, the homosexual rights activist, has argued that existing laws are adequate to protect homosexual people, and he opposes the proposed new offence. Journalists Matthew Parris and Iain Dale, themselves gay men, also oppose the new offence on free speech grounds.

I could list the many occasions on which leading Church people have been visited, telephoned or placed under scrutiny by the police for sermons that they have given in their churches. That is what people are worried about. For example, Mario Conti, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, was reported to the police in 2006 for a sermon in which he asserted that civil partnerships undermined marriage.

Ministers may say that amendment No. 1 is unnecessary, but the Churches whose members and leaders may be on the receiving end of malicious complaints under the new law do not agree. If the words used in the amendment do not do any harm to the Government’s intentions for this offence, I do not see why the Government should resist it.

Nick Herbert: I want to speak to new clause 1, which proposes the abolition of blasphemy laws, and to amendment No. 1, which has been spoken to by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin). I emphasise that the Conservative party regards them both as matters of conscience that call for a free vote, and that I am speaking personally in this regard.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made the case for the abolition of the blasphemy laws perfectly clearly. He talked about their redundancy, which has become more evident since the failure of the prosecution of “Jerry Springer: The Opera”. Indeed, it is hard to understand how any prosecution under the blasphemy laws could succeed when that action did not.

As the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon noted, the Law Commission recommended abolition in 1985. It could be said that that would be the natural consequence of the introduction of the incitement to religious hatred provisions, and the Government accepted that at the time.

I agree that the existence of the blasphemy laws in this country is an impediment to the stand that we would like to take against repressive blasphemy laws elsewhere, whose effect was illustrated recently by the teddy bear case in Sudan. It is true that the blasphemy
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laws are limited to the Anglican Church: they cannot apply to other religions, and they do not apply in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

A summary of the case for abolition might be that

That was said by Lord Denning in 1949.

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