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There are issues of deep symbolism here and it would be wiser not to push this through as a late provision in this very unsatisfactory Bill but to delay for further consideration. For that reason, and others, I shall join the noble Baroness in the Lobby.
Lord Elton: Will the right reverend Prelate take the opportunity to whisper in his brother of Durhams ear the question why, since he wishes that there had been a chance for the present law to have been tested for longer, he feels it necessary to assist the mover of the amendment before that test has taken place?
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: I had not intended to take part in this debate, but I wish to speak briefly in
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Therefore, I align myself with those who would like to see more time for consultation on this matter. I find it paradoxical that in one and the same piece of legislation we are asked to approve a measure that will appear to encourage religious hatred while we are also asked to approve a measure that will discourage sexual hatred. I wonder whether we really have to sort ourselves out on this matter. I very much hope that the Government will take time for more reflection and consultation before introducing this into the Bill.
Lord Neill of Bladen: I was not going to intervene on this, but I support what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and my noble friend Lord Armstrong said. We should not rush to judgment on this proposal, which comes before us at a very late stage. We need to exercise the quality of humility; we do not immediately have present within us all knowledge and all wisdom.
I was chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. When we looked at the funding of political parties, which was the first task when I was on that committee, we travelled around the country to several places and had hearings with interested witnesses who would say what people in that locality thought about the system. This is part of a Bill with the most amazing history. If only the public knewthey do not, because the papers never report itthe history of the Bill: that great hunks of it were never considered by the House of Commons, that bits had been snatched away and then put back on our agenda and that at the last minute we are having this blasphemy debate. That is absolutely no way to proceed in the 21st century.
Lord Neill of Bladen: The information is not and has not been properly before us. We have not had preparation time for this; there may be a mass of material that we could read, including earlier committee reports. My simple message is: let us not rush to judgment thinking that we are very wise today. There is no urgency about this at all. I have not detected any urgency. Even the learned Professor Dawkins does not say what a scandal these laws are or that they must be repealed immediately. I support earlier speakers on this.
Lord Kingsland: The Opposition are going to have a free vote on this matter. In a way, that puts me in a more uncomfortable position than I would have been
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In a case that has been cited by many noble Lords this afternoon, the Jerry Springer casemore formally Green v the City of Westminster Magistrates Courtthe court held that what was necessary to make the publication of potentially blasphemous material a crime is,
If that is what the offence today amounts to, it is a redundant offence, because a very large number of offences on the statute book connected with public order and related matters will fulfil the function of blasphemy just as well as that definition of the crime itself. If this was the only issue in the debate, that would be the end of the matter. But, as so many noble Lords have said, it is not quite as simple as that.
The principle of equality in the eyes of God is the basis of the rule of law in our society, developed by common law judges over the centuries informed by Christian principles. Christianity has been absolutely fundamental to the development of our constitutional freedoms and I worry a little that this is no longer understood in our society. Secularisation will bleach from our memories the inextricable link between Christianity and so much of value in our society and in our system of law and government.
Would keeping blasphemy on the statute book arrest that process, or at least be an enduring symbol that Christianity remains, and ought to continue to remain, at the root of our society? This is a difficult question, which I have found very hard to resolve myself. I have decided, on balance, that things are best left as they are.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: Noble Lords will know that these Benches are not empty at Prayers and that there are people of deep religious faith and from various expressions of faith among the Liberal Democrats who sit in this House. I heard the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham say that he was supporting the Government but wanted to make it very clear that he was not a liberal. Neither he nor your Lordships will be surprised therefore that there may be a consensus of views on these Benches on the appropriate way to vote on the amendments.
The noble Baroness, Lady OCathain, referred to Mr Evan Harriss response to the letters from the Archbishops. She quoted only half a sentence and I owe it to him to complete his sentence. In the context of saying that the Bishops should see that the blasphemy law was a general repression on valid free expression, he said this:
That is Mr Harriss view. I know him well and know that he would defend to the death the right of any person in this country to express a religious belief of any sort that that person chooses. He is for free expression. This is a free vote on our side of the Committee and it had not crossed my mind that anyone could think that the Liberal Democrats would be whipped through the Lobbies on an issue such as this.
Baroness Andrews: As was predictable, this has been a profound and fascinating debate. I am very grateful to everyone who has spoken, particularly those who supported our amendments. We have seen divisions across the House and, indeed, within the family of the churchliterally. I am grateful that noble Lords have been able to air their deep feelings and passions in the way that has happened. We recognise that the consultation period was short, but it has come after 22 years of debatedebate in which many people both inside and outside this House have engagedand the issues have been thoroughly aired. The opportunity has been taken in this Bill, because it was appropriate and timely to do so. There is integrity in that. This debate has a long history. I do not want to make it longer, but I do want to deal with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, before returning briefly to sum up the substantial debate.
The noble Lords amendment goes further than the abolition of the offence of blasphemy. It seeks to abolish the historic offences as set out in his amendment in paragraphs (2)(c) to (f) and also in paragraphs (1)(b) and (1)(c), which seek to abolish two separate and distinct offences of disturbing a religious service and assaulting a clergyman. On the latter amendments, although I completely respect the noble Lords conviction that they are necessary, they seem to overlap somewhat with the historic offences. In fact, as the Law Commission itself pointed out, there is some doubt whether these offences exist at all. The last prosecution was in 1765 and even then there was some doubt about whether the offences existed. The noble Lord will therefore not be surprised when I say that we cannot accept his amendment.
Let me turn to the historic offences that the noble Lord specifically wants to remove. Although some of them may appear anachronistic and unnecessary, the evidence suggests that at least some continue to be useful. Their use is infrequent, but we believe they serve a continuing purpose. Their purpose is quite simply to ensure that places of religious worship are treated with respect and that people are free to worship in an atmosphere of peace and dignity. These may be old offences and some may apply only to Christian places of worship, but that is not the case with all of them. The laws are used infrequently but it is important to retain them. In 2003, the Select Committee considered that the evidence on that point was finely balanced. Specific evidence from the Director of Public Prosecutions stated that there was value in the legislation, and the statute has recently been deemed appropriate to use.
Baroness Andrews: That did not stop him saying that it would probably continue to be of value to keep the offence. Very little has changed since then and we see no reason for departing from that position. This provision to ensure that places of worship are treated respectfully has survived the test of time and still reflects commonly held values which are as relevant today as they were when the law was made.
We accept that the offences which the noble Lord proposes to abolish in his amendment may in some cases duplicate provision in the general law, but they do not potentially offend freedom of speech or appear to offer significant special privileges to the established church in the way that the blasphemy provisions do. With respect, I cannot accept those aspects of his amendment.
I turn to the primary subject of debate this afternoon: abolition of the offence of blasphemy. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that my department is also the communities department and not just the local government department. Communities are what we are concerned with in the Bill and in this amendment, not least the way in which communities respect each others faiths. It is perfectly appropriate for us to introduce this amendment.
I shall not repeat what I said in my opening speechit was long enoughexcept to reiterate three main points. First, it is absolutely appropriate and right for Parliament to take the step of repealing the law on blasphemy and blasphemous libel. The law has proved itself anachronistic; there has been general agreement across the Committee on that. To all intents and purposes the law is unworkable, as evidenced by the fact that very few prosecutions have been brought. It is a law which serves to protect neither the divine nor the individual believer. It is a law whichas many noble Lords have agreedto be effective, requires that the offence provokes civil disorder and civil strife, a threshold which is virtually impossible to achieve or prove and does not do what those most concerned about the change really want: protection of the individual who holds a deep belief in something which for them is sacred.
We have talked a lot this afternoon about signs and symbols. I would say to noble Lords who are concerned about the perception of a drift to secularism that I do not think that perceptions of the value, sincerity, influence and place of faith in our society are supported or served by such a law. That case has been made by members of the church in this Committee. On the apparent drift to secularism, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham made an extraordinary and powerful case to the effect that the Church does not need law to defend itself. I do not think that that could possibly be improved on. I rest our case on those words.
Secondly, we have argued, as have noble Lords across the Committee, and members of the church have agreed, that we already have a raft of legislation dating from 2001as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, agreedthat offers far more appropriate and useful protection to those who find themselves
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Thirdly, in addition to the profound and proud traditions of free speech in this country, we now have the extra protection offered by the European Court of Human Rights and our own Human Rights Act. These protect our right to religious belief and to religious faith, or no faith, and our right to free speech. All of this suggests that we have achieved a balance of law and a protection that is workablethat protects the individual and his personal beliefs while maintaining the value and necessity of free speech.
Noble Lords have asked why we should repeal a law that is redundant. I shall give two reasons. There are two different voices in this, the first of which is that of the church itself. The letter from the Archbishops states:
At a time of continuing debate about the nature of our society and its values, this change needs to be seen for what it is, namely the removal of what has long been recognised as unsatisfactory and not very workable offences in circumstances in which scurrilous attacks on the Christian religion no longer threaten the fabric of society.
If the law is not such that a public prosecutor would have regular recourse to enforcement of it, then the question arises as to whether general uncertainty as to its application should be allowed to persist, or for the clarification of this to be left to the vagaries of private prosecution.
I am very grateful for the way in which the debate has been conducted and am particularly grateful to have had the views of the church. I believe that we have a shared understanding and hope that we can therefore put this debate to rest. The noble Baroness, Lady OCathain, will probably not be persuaded by me but I hope that she will be persuaded by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York. In his final words, he invited the Committee to see this offence off, and I hope that that is what it will do.
Baroness O'Cathain: Perhaps I may ask the Minister a simple question. In view of the comments of my noble friend Lord Kingsland and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, have the Government imposed a Whip on this issue?
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