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Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He should look at subsection (1) (a), which refers to the use of threatening, abusive or

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insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour. Subsection (1) (b) concerns display. Therefore, there are two legs to the offence in Section 5, one of which consists of using words in a public place and the other of displaying writing in a public place.

Lord Elton: My Lords, both relate to a public place. It remains the case that matters which occur in a dwelling are excluded. I believe that there are also wider exclusions, but I shall go back to the books after the debate. It is slightly academic, because I believe that it would be an atrocious error for such a small gathering, at such a late hour, to take what to many of us would be a fundamental step and change the law of this country. However, on the assumption that that is what some noble Lords wish to do, perhaps I may conclude briefly.

The question that then arises is this. Does the legislation cited in the Bill provide the protection to which the noble Lord refers? Those noble Lords who have addressed that question have always seemed to me to have stopped at the point where the Law Commission raised the objection regarding the difficulty of identifying mens rea. As the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, said, that difficulty was removed by the judgment in Whitehouse v. Gay News ex parte. Therefore the law gives a measure of protection which is wider than the Public Order Act and of the nature that we wish.

Is the fact that it does not protect non-Christians a reason for removing the protection from Christians? Plainly in logic, no; and I note that when we last debated the issue it was clearly stated that the Moslems did not wish it to be removed for reasons which chime in very much with what the right reverend Prelate said. I refer to a general perception of the sanctity of God and the necessity of all mankind to recognise that. Any removal of that protection is the wrong signal, as my noble friend Lord Caldecote said.

We then go to this question. Should non-Christians be protected? The answer self-evidently is yes. That is difficult, and no one has yet discovered how to accomplish it.

I add only one other reflection. I do not see it as necessary that the protection should be afforded by the same legislation. The protection afforded by the blasphemy Act is afforded to people who subscribe to a faith which came to these islands before St. Augustine set foot on the island of Thanet and has remained the religion of this state and its institutions ever since. It is fitting and proper that it should be distinguished in some way in legislation. That in no way means that the protection and respect given to others should be less. In the debate on education today your Lordships emphasised the importance of the fact that our religious education should not only recognise the primacy of the Christian religion but bring up our children to respect the faiths of others.

I regard it as self-evident that there is but one God and that his Son, Jesus Christ, redeemed us all—the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, as well as me, if he wished to take advantage of it. But I do not feel that I should be protected in that view, which he believes to be

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wrong, and that he should not be protected in his views, which I believe to be wrong. Finally, what I believe would be wrong would be to remove the protection from everyone altogether in this precipitate manner. I hope that noble Lords will support the amendment.

10.48 p.m.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge: My Lords, there are a number of reasons why I do not like the Bill. I shall confine my remarks to just one aspect of the matter; namely, that it would send out a highly undesirable message. To pass the Bill would be to proclaim to ourselves and to the world outside that we do not mind if God is vilified and his name dragged through the mud. We would be acknowledging that we do not mean a thing when we pray at the beginning of each day's business,


    "Our Father....Hallowed be thy name".

Furthermore, we would be denying that all authority comes ultimately from God, as is recognised by the words, "By the Grace of God", in the very title of our monarch.

In Britain we have a multiracial society in a Christian country. Christianity permeates virtually all our institutions and heritage. For example, just as in Islamic countries the law is based on the Koran, so in this country most of our law has its roots in the Bible. A 22 year-old Moslem said to a friend of mine recently, "This is a Christian country. Never mind what the Government may say, or what the BBC and the press may say. Yet you have more mosques in your towns than you have churches. Why has this happened? What has happened to the Christians? Why don't they all rise up as one man and proclaim the Christian faith all over the United Kingdom? Why ever don't they?"

We have a chance to do so tonight and to show that our Christian heritage still matters to us. God requires us to look after and protect all sections of our community, including ethnic and religious minorities. I cannot see that the Bill does anything for them—quite the reverse. To legalise blasphemy would result in more blasphemy all round, not only for Christians.

We live in an increasingly dangerous and unstable world and our need for God's protection and His protecting hand over us is greater than ever. No one who has even a minimal acquaintance with the Bible could be surprised if unchecked blasphemy were to result in the withdrawal of God's protecting hand from our country. I dearly want to see our nation remaining in God's love and protection. That requires us to do all we can to see that God is honoured at least as much as under the present law. That is the message that I hope will go out from this debate. I therefore urge your Lordships' House to support the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.

10.51 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne: My Lords, I too share the concern of other noble Lords that we are debating this issue once again after the full consideration we gave to it just eight

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months ago. Sometimes I feel we can debate certain subjects so much that the life goes out of the debate and the purpose becomes unclear.

I am not aware of any widespread and continuing campaign about our blasphemy laws. As the old adage goes, "If it isn't broken, why fix it?" There is the separate issue of protection against incitement to religious hatred for religions other than Christianity, but I do not think we need to tamper with the blasphemy laws to meet that concern, and certainly not tonight.

Some may feel that because the blasphemy laws in other countries are getting a bad press—I think of the horrific case of the death penalty being applied for actions by a 12 year-old Pakistani Christian boy—we should get rid of our own law. But a few moments' reflection show the folly of that suggestion.

Our blasphemy law is not about heresy or theological debate. I may not like the views of other religions or even of other Christians, but I accept the right in our multicultural society for people to express their views. If they scrawl them on a wall, I think we would be more concerned about the graffiti than its content. I am reminded of the message on a Cambridge faculty building one summer: "God's not dead", to which a wag had added, "He's just revising!"

The English blasphemy law is about protecting something which we need to cherish and value; namely, the Christian religion and the risen Lord Jesus, on which so much of our society and its institutions are based. The blasphemy law, when tested in the courts—a very infrequent occurrence—has only ever protected against the most scurrilous kind of written, verbal or artistic abuse. My goodness, if our law meant that every mention of God's name taken in vain led to a prosecution, our courts would be brought to a standstill in no time at all! The BBC alone would be assailed by litigation.

Our blasphemy law is a safety net. God does not need our protection, but we do need to protect each other from chipping away at the very foundation of our society. I believe that the current law provides that protection and I shall be voting to keep it in place tonight by supporting the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.

10.54 p.m.

Viscount Brentford: My Lords, like some other noble Lords, I have received a whole sheaf of letters from people saying, "Retain the law of blasphemy". I do not often receive much mail on legislation in this House and I am intrigued that on this matter there is a feeling around—and I do not know the people who have written to me—that we should retain the law of blasphemy. I find that an interesting point.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London on one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in moving this debate. The distinction between the law of blasphemy in Pakistan and in the UK is a question of principle and not of degree. A legal system where a 12 year-old boy alleged to be illiterate can, on the accusation of one person, be convicted under the law and executed is for us a difference of principle and not

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of degree. The law of Pakistan should not have any bearing on what we are discussing this evening. It is not a reason for revoking the law of blasphemy in the UK.

My views are most admirably summarised in the remarks made by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York on 16th June. I should like to read a few sentences of what he said because it crystallises for me the argument that we are discussing now:


    "The way these matters work now means that the protection afforded to one faith—a faith that is after all the faith of the established Church and a faith adhered to with varying degrees of enthusiasm by between 70 and 80 per cent. of the population—provides a sort of umbrella from which others can benefit; not directly through the law, but through the presumption against blasphemy which the existence of this ancient legislation still retains within our legal system.


    If the crime of blasphemy were to be abolished, we should be saying something quite inviting to many of those people who are looking for opportunities. Let me stress that this is not primarily about protecting Christians. In the end it is about protecting the quality of our society from the erosion of values which we observe going on within it. Many of those values are encapsulated in those things we hold sacred".—[Official Report, 16/6/94; col. 1895.]

That endorses my view far more ably than I could express it.

As was stated by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, on 16th June, the fact that this law is not often evidenced in the courts shows that the law is successful, and not that it is not needed. I believe very strongly that we should therefore retain the law of blasphemy and leave it alone. I would much rather that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, withdrew the Bill from Second Reading than that we accept the amendment. But if he is not prepared to do so, then I will vote in favour of the amendment.

10.58 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I rise from this Bench in the first speech after the gap. In doing so, I must make it clear, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, that my Party as such does not have any particular views on this subject. However, I believe all my colleagues on these Benches would agree that there is a very strong Liberal presumption in favour of free speech, and that any limitation to free speech must be made out wholly and fully. It is my judgment that in this debate—in spite of the splendid and almost convincing speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough—the case has not been made out. I therefore join, I believe, with most of my colleagues in saying that a repeal of the blasphemy laws is a valuable and necessary step on the path, among other things, towards disentangling religion from the ethical and prophetic functions which religion exists to promote and which religion, as often as not, strangles.

Ethical and prophetic ideals form the most important part of the life of a great many of us. They give us the goals to which many of us strive. They have pioneered all that we most admire in the religions of The Book, in Christendom, in Jewry and in Islam, and they are always in danger of being smothered by institutional religion, particularly in its most extreme form—religious fundamentalism.

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We must never forget that it was religion that persecuted Jesus of Nazareth, accused him of blasphemy and brought him to the gallows. It was religion which set up the Inquisition, torturing and burning human beings in the name of the same Jesus of Nazareth. It is religion—it may be said that the case is rather different but it is still religion—which condemns 14 year-old children to death for blasphemy in the Indian sub-continent. It is religion which enforces injustices in Israel in the name of the Torah.

It is religion which insists on blasphemy laws to protect its own image. Why? Surely it is not because God will be hurt by our idiocies. If he is capable of hurt, which is a very difficult theological and philosophical question much discussed at the present moment, the hurt done by blasphemy must be infinitesimal to the hurt done by so many other things that we do by other means. But, no, we are told by most of the intelligent people who think that we must keep the Blasphemy Act that no-one is foolish enough to pass blasphemy laws to protect God. We are urged to pass them or keep them in place to protect the sensibilities of His worshippers.

I suppose that the protection of sensibilities has its place. In fact, I am sure that it has, though I am often reminded of the words of that great Anglican saint and theologian, Charles Williams, who referred with some distaste to the,


    "simple sheep who have trampled underfoot many of the most delicate flowers of Christendom".

But if those susceptibilities are to be protected, they should be protected along with others of our deepest susceptibilities.

Those who are rude about God can in some circumstances offend our deepest beliefs. So do those who are rude about our mothers or about capitalism; and in any random collection of adults in this country—as, for instance, in the normal membership of your Lordships' House; I say the "normal" membership of your Lordships' House because it is a select sub-group of it which is present this evening—it would be difficult to guess successfully which of those three rudenesses would most offend. This is an area, in fact, in which God and Mammon are on a par. It is Mammon who should be the most frightened, if we believe, as I do, that it is God who will win out in the end.

Of course we should protect people's susceptibilities, if we can do so without infringing the important principle of free speech, which is what protects prophecy, inspiration and the proclamation of ethics. But we should do so, as we do for the most part, by general laws and not by specific ones. The blasphemy laws of this country are typical monuments to the British tendency to hoard left-over relics of the past which are in no way applicable to the present day and which we are always horrified to find being applied by other countries and other religions.

I pay tribute to my noble friend in his unending battle against bureaucracy and intolerance all over the world. It is a battle which, I venture to suggest, would be highly approved of by most of the great prophets

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of mankind, whom these laws ostensibly exist to protect. I urge your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading.

11.5 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I begin my remarks as always by repeating that on Private Members' Bills anybody who speaks from this Dispatch Box speaks for himself and not for his party. Having said that, my noble friend Lord Longford challenged me to recognise that there is a powerful Christian socialist tradition in the Labour Party, and I gladly acknowledge that. My father-in-law was an active and deeply committed Christian socialist. But I must ask my noble friend to recognise at the same time that there are some of us who have no religion but who are still committed socialists and still committed in our humanitarian beliefs—to use the word he so kindly used about me.

I have had no religion all my life and I plan to die that way. I will on any suitable occasion—and this is not a suitable occasion—engage in debate with people of any religion, in which I will argue that for philosophical, moral and social reasons the decline, indeed the elimination, of religious belief would be for the benefit of mankind.


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