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6 May 2008 : Column 638

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With respect to the Minister, I can deal with this point myself, and I suggest that we move on.

Lords amendment No. 117 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 127 disagreed to, and Government amendments (a) to (e) in lieu thereof agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 118 to 126 and 128 to 149 agreed to.

New clause

Lords amendment: No. 116.

Maria Eagle: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 196 and 344.

Maria Eagle: These amendments abolish the common law criminal offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. Following my announcement on Report on 9 January, and after a short period of consultation, the Government tabled these amendments at the Committee stage in the other place. These offences have now largely fallen into disuse and therefore run the risk of bringing the law into disrepute. The issue of what to do about them has been around for many years and has attracted considerable debate. As long ago as 1985, the Law Commission recommended that they be abolished.

The Lords Select Committee Report on religious offences, published in 2003, devotes a whole chapter to the issue. As I said on Report, it is high time that Parliament reached a settled conclusion on the matter. Today gives us an opportunity to do so. The last prosecution under these laws was in 1977, in the case of Whitehouse v. Gay News Ltd, and there has been no public prosecution under them since the 1920s. There have therefore been no cases since the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1998. Given that these laws protect only the tenets of the Christian Churches, they would appear to be plainly discriminatory.

Mr. Cash: The Minister may be aware of a case that she did not mention—Wingrove v. the United Kingdom—in which the European Court, not a body for which I hold a great brief, ruled that people should be able to say what they liked in matters relating to blasphemy, under article 10 of the convention. It is peculiar that when we come up against political correctness, sometimes the Government use the European convention on human rights to support their position, but neither do they deny that the convention also gives rise to rights on our side of the equation.

Maria Eagle: I did not quite follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and he may intervene again if he wishes to do so. I do not believe that abolishing the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel is anything to do with political correctness.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): If this law is not being used, one might wonder whether it is doing any harm. One might make the point that its abolition could appear to be an erosion of the position of the established Church. There is a mismatch: people indulge
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in self-censorship of any criticism of the Mohammedan religion—rightly, because we should not criticise it—but they feel free to pour abuse and vitriol on, and make comedies about, Christianity. Getting rid of the blasphemy law sends a message that that is okay, but it is insulting to many Christians.

Maria Eagle: I do not believe that to be the case, and I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s analysis.

In its report on this Bill in January, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said:

The High Court’s decision on 5 December last year that the Theatres Act 1968 and the Broadcasting Act 1990 prevent the prosecution of a theatre, the BBC or another broadcaster for blasphemous libel would appear to have given further weight to the notion that the offences are, to all intents and purposes, moribund. That was the result of a case brought by the organisation Christian Voice in response to the broadcast of the play “Jerry Springer: The Opera”.

We are well aware of concerns—expressed particularly by members of the Christian community, but by no means exclusively by them—that abolition of these laws could be seen to represent further evidence of our society’s drift towards secularisation, and that that would be an attack on the Christian values that underpin so many of our institutions. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has just made it clear that that is his view, but the Government have been at pains to emphasise that the proposal is not in any sense an attack on those values, on the Christian Church or on Christians themselves.

The House will be aware that in 2001 the Government introduced legislation that specifically affords protection, in the form of religiously aggravated offences, to religious as well as racial groups. We have also brought in legislation to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. Perhaps most importantly, we introduced a new offence of incitement to religious hatred in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. I know that there was controversy about some if not all of those provisions, but they show that we have introduced protection for people expressing their religious views that we believe is fair.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am a member of a minority religious group, and I have no doubt that if something insulting were to be said about the religious community to which I belong—however indifferently—I could appeal to the new laws to which the Minister has referred. However, if I were a member of the majority Christian religion, I am not clear that I would get anywhere by appealing to those new laws once the law of blasphemy was abolished.

Maria Eagle: A person in that position would of course gain as much as a member of any other religion. The legislation to which I referred does not exclude members of the Jewish faith, the Church of England or the Catholic Church—or members of any other faith or religion—from the equal protection that it offers.

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I was making the point that the common law offences that we are seeking to abolish have fallen into disuse. If anything, they cause more harm than they do good. Although I accept that not everyone in the House or in society believes that the offences should be abolished, I think that there is a broad consensus that at long last they should go.

The UK is a signatory to a number of international conventions that commit us to tackling discrimination in all its forms, and we are regularly criticised by international bodies for having these laws. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion recently voiced concern about the continuing existence of the blasphemy offences in this country. Moribund and discriminatory as those laws are, their presence can be seen as a blot on our otherwise extremely good record on combating discrimination and promoting human rights. We believe that it is time to abolish those laws, and on that basis I hope the House will accept the Lords amendments.

Mr. Garnier: I am speaking in a purely personal capacity, as this is a matter entirely for the consciences of my hon. Friends. On this side of the Chamber—at least, for hon. Members in the bit directly behind this Dispatch Box—this is a matter for a free vote. What happens in other parts of the Chamber I cannot say.

It might be thought strange for someone who has spent the past 35 years practising at the libel Bar to support the abolition of the common law offence of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, but that is what I intend to do.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It is not strange in the slightest. Surely, as a libel lawyer, my hon. and learned Friend would be interested only in those laws that he could make money out of, and not in those that simply form part of the historical and cultural threads that make this country what it is.

Mr. Garnier: There is always room for levity.

Dr. Lewis: Levity all the way to the bank.

Mr. Garnier: I will not allow myself to be disturbed by the outrageous allegation that my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) has made. It may be that the standards in the City are different from those that we apply in the Temple—but let us leave it there.

8.15 pm

As I think the Minister mentioned, in its verdict on “Jerry Springer: The Opera” the High Court underlined the very high threshold that has to be passed for a prosecution to be brought under the common law of blasphemy. Essentially, the Court said, that means that

Miss Widdecombe: There was.

Mr. Garnier: I think that my right hon. Friend is no longer a member of the Church of England.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We will not have a very satisfactory debate if we keep getting interventions from a sedentary position. Perhaps hon. Members who wish to intervene will do so in the usual way.

Miss Widdecombe: Will my hon. and learned Friend allow me?

Mr. Garnier: If that is the usual way, I will.

Miss Widdecombe: I am most grateful. In response to my admittedly sedentary intervention that all those offences were present in “Jerry Springer: The Opera”, my hon. and learned Friend retorted that I was no longer a member of the Church of England. Is he suggesting that God, Christ and the Bible are the exclusive preserve of the Church of England?

Mr. Garnier: No, I was suggesting that my right hon. Friend was no longer a member of the Church of England.

The High Court also held that

That was the reasoning of the High Court just before Christmas.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and of York wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 29 February, setting out the Church of England’s view of the proposal to abolish these common law offences. Broadly, they said that the decision on “Jerry Springer: The Opera” appeared

Against that background, the two archbishops suggested that the Church of England had

I could not agree with them more in that: this is the most shambolic piece of legislation that has ever had the misfortune to come before this House. I think that many hon. Members on the Treasury Bench would agree with me.

Mr. Hanson indicated dissent.

Mr. Garnier: If the Minister is saying that the whole lot of them do, he is quite right. The whole lot is dreadful.

The two archbishops were speaking on behalf of the Church, and it appeared to them that the verdict in the “Jerry Springer: The Opera” case would make it much harder to bring prosecutions

Although they said that

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they did not advise that the change in the law should be resisted.

Dr. Evan Harris: I am curious about the letter from the archbishops, and I would be grateful if the hon. and learned Gentleman let me know what he understood them to mean. Does he think they were saying that if blasphemy still was a useful offence that could be used to suppress insulting language directed against Christian beliefs, it should be kept, and that they do not oppose the abolition of the offence only because the recent judgment showed that it would be quite difficult to use it? Or are they saying they think it wrong to give special protection to religious belief, or to one particular class of religious belief, however wide a class Christianity may be considered to be? What is the hon. and learned Gentleman’s view of what they meant?

Mr. Garnier: My view is that the archbishops were taking a pragmatic approach on the effect of the High Court decision on common law.

Mr. Bacon: May I help my hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)? The description that my hon. and learned Friend gave of the letter from the archbishops seems to set out a classic Church of England position—neither for nor against, and not willing to resist.

Mr. Garnier: That remark would have been more suitably made in an independent speech than in an intervention, but of course my hon. Friend is entirely free to make what remarks he wishes, and to make them in the manner in which he wishes. It is not for me to comment further on that.

Having read the archbishops’ letter to the Secretary of State, and having understood their attitude to the repeal of the set of common law offences in question, it is not for me to take a different view. The blasphemy law is very rarely used, if at all. We are witnessing the end of a Government who have introduced 3,000 or more new criminal offences, so it is to some extent refreshing to see the Government removing one or two of those offences from the criminal law. I will not pursue the matter further, because I know that there are a lot of very keen Conservative Members behind me who wish to say quite a lot. For my part, I will support the removal of this set of offences from the statute book.

David Howarth: The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has already set out what was said in the case of the application of Green against the Westminster justices, but it is worth emphasising what Lord Justice Hughes said in that case. In his view, the essence of blasphemy and blasphemous libel turned out to be not the protection of religion or religious views, but the prevention of civil strife. That civil strife might come about through the insulting of the Christian religion, but the offence is only the method; the object of the exercise is to prevent civil strife.

It should be said that the issue of whether the Church of England in particular was protected by the blasphemy
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offence comes about through the connection, in the minds of lawyers and politicians over the centuries, between the Church of England and social order. That is why the idea spread that the offence protects only the Church of England. Of course, that is not so; it protects Christianity in general. It is also worth saying that the relationship between blasphemy and human rights is influenced by the idea of the blasphemy offence being about the prevention of civil strife, and not about—

Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Howarth: In a second; I knew that the hon. Gentleman would intervene at that point. I will just finish what I was saying. The relationship between blasphemy and human rights is influenced by the idea of the blasphemy offence being about the prevention of civil strife, and not about questions of free expression alone. That is because the human rights aspect of blasphemy is entirely influenced by the fact that it is a public order offence. It is perfectly justifiable to say that the blasphemy offence does not violate the Human Rights Act 1998 as long as it is seen as a public order offence, and not as being purely to do with speech.

Mr. Cash: I am afraid that I really do not buy the argument that it is necessary to include the civil strife issue, for the simple reason that in the House of Lords case of R v. Lemon it is said unequivocally that

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