Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence

Letter from the Home Office (5)

  You asked that we might elaborate on the following response to Lord Avebury's question: Whether Section 1 of the Criminal Libel Act 1819 could apply to non-Christian faiths?

    "A In relation to offence (a), blasphemous libel is a common law offence, and if Lord Avebury is concerned about the established church, it is that common law offence that he should be repealing. The provision at s.1 of the Criminal Libel Act merely provides for an ancillary power of seizure of blasphemous material (which is limited to Christianity), but also of seditious libellous material, which has nothing to do with religion, and should not be repealed."

  I have set out below the arguments that underpin our original response.

  1.  Section 1 of the Criminal Libel Act 1819 (the long title of which is "an act for the more effectual prevention and punishment of blasphemous and seditious libels") gives to the court the power to order the search for and seizure of the material which has been the subject of a successful blasphemous or seditious libel prosecution. That is where there has been a guilty verdict for the "composing, printing or publishing" of blasphemous or seditious libel, that material can be seized and searched for.

  2.  The key issue as far as blasphemous libel is concerned seems to us to be the existence of the common law offence of blasphemous libel, rather than whether section 1 of the 1819 Act should cover it. There are no separate policy issues arising from the removal from the Act of the words referring to blasphemy and the established church. If the common law offence of blasphemous libel is repealed the section has no effect for such material: there could be no convictions for blasphemous libel and therefore no seizure or search for such material could be instigated.

  3.  The rest of the section applies to seditious libel. While this is in itself perhaps a contentious area, we would suggest respectfully that its repeal would need to be debated in a wider context than in the context of the Select Committee's inquiry into religious offences since it arguably raises issues beyond the scope of the inquiry. It is for that reason that we would not support the repeal of section 1 of the Criminal Libel Act 1819 in its entirety.

28 October 2002

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