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The Earl of Longford: My Lords, may I ask my noble friend a question? If I say that tonight I shall pray for him that before the end some light will shine, will he be pleased or sorry?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my reaction is concerned only with my respect and affection for my noble friend; the prayer itself is a matter of indifference to me. I am sorry; I am brought into this position because so many noble Lords declared an interest, as they said, and declared that their interest as Christians leads them to have a view about this legislation. My declaring an interest as a non-religious person leads me to be able to say that I am the last person in this House who is capable of committing blasphemy. In order to commit blasphemy, like committing heresy or apostasy, one must believe something in order to oppose somebody else's belief. One must believe another religion in order to oppose somebody else's belief.

I am temperamentally and philosophically the last person to wish to insult anybody's religion in the way that would be provided for by the law of blasphemy. We must recognise—and the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Hutchinson, and indeed most recently the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, made clear—that the existing law is adequate for all the purposes for which it is intended that the law of blasphemy should be retained. Indeed, any noble Lord who has respect for the coherence of the law—and I have a great deal of respect for the law, very often far more than for lawyers—must surely recognise the force of the arguments which have been made against this law.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, made clear, it is a judge-made law in the sense that it has changed many times because of the views of the judges who sought to interpret the common law. It is therefore

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peculiarly uncertain in its effect. Nobody could have predicted the possibility of the prosecution of a poem written by a professor of English in Japan in which he expressed great affection for Christ but described him as a homosexual. Nobody could possibly have thought that that would be the only occasion in 17 years in which the law of blasphemy would be invoked.

It is a peculiarly defective law in that it does not allow for any issue of public good; any issue of motivation; any issue of intent; any issue of the effect of the so-called offence. It is a defective law because, as I said, alternatives exist. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough in what, almost till the last minute, was a speech with which I thought I would agree entirely, asked where the alternatives are. A number of noble Lords pointed out the difficulty which occurred to the minority on the Royal Commission 10 years ago in looking for alternatives in new law. I suggest to your Lordships that alternatives exist in the present law.

The fact that the law has not been invoked does not mean that it has been successful but that it has been unnecessary. It is hardly plausible to believe that those who wish to commit blasphemy have been deterred by thinking, "There is a common law offence which I might be committing if I were to say a particular thing". No, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, was right.

Above all, we must maintain freedom of speech unless there is a very profound reason to go against it. We have protection against stirring up hatred and against abuse. We have protection against causing offence and against public disorder. We have protection against all the things which your Lordships would quite rightly wish us to be protected against. We do not need this law. The Bill should have a Second Reading.

11.11 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the subject of this evening's debate is an extremely sensitive one which raises many important issues: the place of religion and the established Church in our society, the protection of beliefs which many hold most dear and freedom of expression and the proper role of the law.

The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, seeks to abolish the current offence of blasphemy and other related offences. Blasphemy is a common law offence. Material is said to be blasphemous if it contains contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, the Bible or the formularies of the Church of England. One of the criticisms of the offence is that it protects only the established Church. Others criticise it on the grounds that it infringes the right to freedom of expression and argue that the law has no place in protecting individual beliefs or feelings in this way.

We have heard noble Lords argue that the offence should be abolished. Others hold the view that it should be retained and possibly expanded. The Government believe that it would be a mistake to

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seek to legislate on this sensitive matter of conscience in the absence of a broad consensus as to the best way forward. Therefore, we are not persuaded that it would be right to sweep away the current law.

There can be little doubt that the abolition of the blasphemy laws is a contentious issue. It is a subject most recently raised in this House during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill when the noble Lord, Lord Lester, proposed the abolition of the common law offence of blasphemy as part of a wider package including a new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

On an earlier occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Willis, introduced a blasphemy abolition Bill in the wake of Mrs Mary Whitehouse's successful private prosecution of Gay News in 1977. The ensuing debates left little doubt as to the lack of consensus on the issue and it is perhaps significant that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, were subsequently withdrawn.

As recently as 1985 the Law Commission looked at the scope for reform in this area. In its report on Offences Against Religion and Public Worship the commission recommended by a majority, but not unanimously, that the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel should be abolished altogether and not replaced.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. As my noble friend pointed out, it was not the majority of the Law Commission who recommended sweeping away the common law offence; all of them did. The only question was whether it should be partially replaced by some other offence.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I do not believe that that is inconsistent with what I said. I simply said that in its report on Offences Against Religion and Public Worship the commission recommended by a majority, but not unanimously, that the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel should be abolished altogether and not replaced. However, of the 1,800 respondents who wrote to the commission to express a view on the matter an overwhelming majority favoured retaining the law. The strong views which were, and are, held on all sides were illustrated by the fact that, very unusually, a minority of two out of the five commissioners made their own separate recommendation that a new statutory offence, extending to all religions, should replace the existing common law offences.

I accept that there are strong arguments against the current blasphemy laws. They date from a time when Christianity was inextricably linked with the law of England and when one could be punished for failing to attend church. There was discrimination in favour of the established Church.

There are also forceful arguments in favour of retention; for example, the unique place which the Established Church has in our society. Removal of the special protection which it is currently afforded would, in the view of some, represent another step towards a secular and unprincipled society in which

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religious belief is a matter of indifference. Indeed, others would argue that blasphemy represents an attack not just on particular religious beliefs, but also on society more generally. To quote from the Law Commission's report, vilifying the sacred beliefs of a significant number of people can,

    "amount to an attack on the fundamental decencies and mutual respect on which society operates, and could damage the stability of a community".

It can also, of course, be an attack on individual feelings. In a previous debate in this House, the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, described blasphemy as,

    "an act of violence to the mind and spirit and deeply spiritual feelings of very large numbers, millions and millions, of people capable of entertaining such feelings. It is an assault upon the mind and spirit just as much as mayhem is an assault upon the body".—[Official Report, 23/2/78; col. 290.]

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, proposes the simple abolition of the offence of blasphemy without replacement. That is certainly one approach but, as I and others have indicated this evening, it is by no means an approach which meets with universal applause, and that brings me back to the Government's position on this sensitive issue.

We recognise the strength of feeling on both sides and recognise that there are arguments both for and against the abolition of the blasphemy laws. But, in the absence of any clear consensus, we believe that it would be a mistake to seek to legislate on a matter as sensitive as this and we therefore favour the maintenance of the status quo.

I have responded to this debate on behalf of the Government and as this is a Private Member's Bill the Government would not propose to vote against it. However, it is a sensitive issue and one of personal conscience, as has been said by noble Lords on all sides of the House. Therefore, should the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, press a vote this evening, I personally shall support him.

11.17 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate and who have remained until this late hour to see what the outcome will be. I should like to express my gratitude particularly to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for the manner in which he spoke to his amendment. At the same time, however, I must respectfully point out to him that this is not exactly a replay of 1978. There are two material differences. One is the report of the Law Commission, which has been much discussed this evening. The second is the extension of the Public Order Act, which I tried to underline as being the most important event in the past few years as regards the scope for a separate offence of blasphemy. However, that factor does not appear to have been taken into consideration by many noble Lords who imagine that, if the Bill receives a Second Reading, it will open the floodgates to blasphemers who will undermine the whole fabric of our society.

We have heard some extreme exaggerations of what might happen. Perhaps I may administer a little corrective: the consequences of giving the Bill a

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Second Reading will be that it goes into Committee where the alternatives can be canvassed. The Minister repeated what has been said by a number of other speakers: that because there is no consensus, we should not proceed without knowledge of what kind of alternative offence, if any, should replace the common law.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Beaumont and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that the existing laws are perfectly adequate. I am reinforced in that opinion by the fact that prosecutions under the Blasphemy Act are so rare. I think they would be made rarer still by the extension of Section 5 of the Public Order Act to offences which no longer require the ingredient of a breach of the peace being caused. That factor has been seriously underestimated by those who are seeking to kill the Bill by voting for its postponement for six months.

It is a matter that should be tested, because where are the hordes mentioned on a previous occasion - and repeated tonight - by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York who will commit the types of offences that have been suggested? What kind of conduct are they likely to commit which will not be caught by Section 5 of the Public Order Act or any of the other statutes that have been mentioned?

What has been most noteworthy in the whole debate is that those who wish to kill the Bill cannot produce any examples of the type of conduct which they believe would become legal as a result of the Bill passing on to the statute book but which is unlawful because of the common law offence of blasphemy. One of the reasons why they cannot do so is, as my noble friend Lord Hutchinson pointed out, that the common law is so uncertain. It is made up by judges as they go along, and if any further cases come before the courts, the decision might well be different or in conflict with previous decisions made by judges.

If we cannot think of any examples of the type of conduct which is caught by the common law offence of blasphemy and which is not dealt with by any of the numerous statutes which have been quoted, I suggest that it is not remotely possible that by allowing the Bill to get onto the statute book we shall be opening the floodgates about which people have been talking. But, if the danger exists, the right place to examine it in detail is in Committee. That is where minds will be concentrated upon the alternative solutions which might be acceptable to the Church, despite the fact that in the 10 years which have elapsed since the Law Commission reported—I do not agree with the Minister that that is a short space of time—there has been plenty of scope for consideration. We have had reports such as that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London which I have mentioned.

However, since no consensus has emerged, and since it is, as I think, vital to remove a protection which applies to one religion only in our country and leaves the rest of them out in the cold, and if any new offence is necessary, let it be considered in Committee where minds will be concentrated, and

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where, if there is any solution, it can be produced, and if there is not, we can leave matters to be dealt with by the existing statutes.

I hope that on reflection your Lordships will allow the Bill to go into Committee where all those alternatives can be properly and thoroughly considered.

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