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should not be repealed."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of blasphemous libel is repealed the section has no effect for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
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