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Lord Renton: My Lords, I am thoroughly opposed to the new clause. It abolishes offences that have been part of our civilisation for generations. Indeed, they have been statutory for a long time. To take blasphemy, civilised behaviour should not legalise blasphemy. To take,

that would be contrary to religious freedom, which we all support. To abolish religious freedom in that way is uncivilised. The final item in the new clause is the abolition of,

In our civilisation, we abolished striking of a person. We are totally opposed to it. How the noble Lord can suggest that striking is justified on religious grounds is beyond my comprehension. I hope that all your Lordships will criticise and vote against the new clause.

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The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I see that I have the pleasure of following the noble Lord, Lord Renton, because clearly he is a very fit man. I read an interesting piece in today's Evening Standard. Apparently the noble Lord, Lord Renton, managed to run faster than his noble friend Lord Pilkington, who is only in his seventies, in order to catch a cab. I look forward to sprinting against the noble Lord myself.

I approach Amendment No. 2 with somewhat mixed feelings. It is clearly motivated by a genuine desire to remove the vestiges of religious discrimination from our law and I certainly support the principle of a level playing field and equal respect for all religions. But I do raise the question whether this is the right time and the right Bill for such an amendment.

I should make it clear that I do not wish to defend the present law of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, and I suspect that that goes for all the other Members on this Bench. I could not agree more with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that God does not need a law to
 
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protect Him. For myself, there is first the question of what might constitute blasphemy. If blasphemy is defined as what "grieves the heart of God", I submit that this is above all about human cruelty: unkindness, injustice and all that defaces the image of God in humanity; that violates his children. Personally, I find a very great deal in our society which is lewd, vulgar and distasteful. Some of it is directed to religion. I would rather we lived in a more civilised society which did not display such signs of decadence, but I do not think that such things count as blasphemy in the same way as torture and cruelty.

So there is the whole question of what actually counts as blasphemy. On a more technical point, as the majority of the Law Commission argued in 1985, the meaning of these offences is legally uncertain in the place that they give to intention. They are unacceptably discriminatory in protecting only the Christian religion—and possibly only the tenets of the Church of England, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out—and for these and other reasons they are a dead letter. In recent years the Church of England has expressed a willingness in principle to assent to their repeal.

However, we have advocated a step-by-step approach to deal first with the problem of religious hatred and then to tackle blasphemy. It is asserted that to abolish blasphemy at this point would send a clear message that this Bill is not an extension of the blasphemy law. It is important that such a message should go out and be received. But to deal with blasphemy now runs the risk of sending exactly the opposite message, or at any rate a confused one. If religious hatred is nothing to do with blasphemy, let the two be dealt with separately.

On the question of disruptive behaviour in church services, places of worship or burial grounds, it is true that Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 reflects an historical situation which no longer obtains. It would be desirable to reform the law to reflect the needs of a multi-faith society. The Law Commission recognised this in proposing two new offences: the disruption of communal worship and the desecration of places of worship. But such a reform of the law would require very careful consultation and thought.

As I have said, I think that I can speak on behalf of all the Members on this Bench in not wanting to oppose an amendment like this in principle, but we have to ask whether this is the right time and the right Bill for it.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, my name is down in support of this amendment and, indeed, it is supported by our Front Bench. I should declare a personal and professional interest long past in that I appeared in the Salman Rushdie case when an attempt was made by Mr Choudhury to extend the law of blasphemy to protect Islam against insult. It is right that I should declare it and a little later I shall be saying something about that case and what one may learn from it.
 
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My task is briefly to explain where I think we are at the moment on the law of blasphemy because the situation now is untenable. The leading English case on the common law of blasphemous libel was decided by the Law Lords in 1979, in the Gay News case. By a majority of three to two, and without the benefit of the framework of the Human Rights Act 1998 or full argument on the issues of free speech, the Law Lords breathed new life into what had been regarded until then as an anachronistic and arbitrary relic of Tudor and Stuart times when draconian powers of censorship had been exercised by the Ecclesiastical Courts and the Court of Star Chamber until they were taken over by the common law courts. As Lord Diplock, one of the dissenting liberals in the Gay News case, observed:

Mrs Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution against the editor and publishers of Gay News alleging that they had,

For the previous 50 years, the offence had disappeared from the criminal calendar and was regarded as having become obsolete.

The Gay News defendants were tried at the Old Bailey and convicted. The editor was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, and fined £500. The publishers were fined £1,000. The Court of Appeal dismissed their appeal and so did the House of Lords. The only member of the Appellate Committee who referred to free speech was Lord Scarman, who explained that he wished not only to give new life to the offence, but also to extend its reach to protect all religions. In the Irish Supreme Court's judgment in Corway, where it effectively abolished the law of libel, it referred to what it described as Lord Scarman's "remarkable" rationale for the existence of an offence of blasphemy. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that I will not read out exactly what Lord Scarman said, but in conclusion, he said:

That is an extraordinary statement from a very enlightened judge.

The previous trial for blasphemy had taken place 50 years previously in the case of Gott. John William Gott was indicted for having published a blasphemous libel by selling to the public two pamphlets entitled Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons and God and Gott, satirising the biblical story of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, from Matthew Chapter 21, verses 2 to 7, which is based on a literal interpretation of the prophecy that the King of Zion would come,
 
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which is Zechariah Chapter 9, verse 9. One man in the crowd said, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself"; one woman said, "Disgusting, disgusting". Nothing further occurred. Gott was convicted and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour, even though he was suffering from an incurable disease.

In dismissing Gott's appeal, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, said:

The harsh sentence aroused great public indignation, with strong criticism of the press and condemnation by a number of clergymen. But there was no condemnation or criticism by any of the Law Lords in the Gay News case. In fact, Lord Scarman described as "relevant to British society today" the statement of the Home Secretary, Edward Shortt, when pressed to remit Gott's sentence. The Home Secretary said:

In the wake of the Gay News case, the Law Commission reviewed the subject and, after a detailed study, its report was published 20 years ago in June 1985. It recommended the abolition of the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. It identified three main defects in the common law. First, it stated:

Secondly:

Thirdly, it stated:

I shall omit the differences of view but I note that Brenda Hoggett—now the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale of Richmond, a very distinguished Law Lord—was one of those who recommended total abolition.

Finally, in the case of Choudhury a challenge was made, with the support of many Muslims, to the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, seeking to prosecute Mr Rushdie and his publishers, Viking Penguin, for blasphemous libel.
 
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Reliance was placed upon what I have read to your Lordships in the Gay News case and on the European convention. I acted for Viking Penguin. It was a painful experience because it illustrated the great danger of retaining blasphemy as a criminal offence. The great danger was—and remains—that followers of other faiths seek a blasphemy law to protect their faith against gross insult. One religion's faith is, of course, another religion's blasphemy. The Divisional Court rejected the application. It agreed that extending the blasphemy law would be impossible, as did the European Human Rights Commission.

Having had the appalling experience in that case of a major division between, as it were, white liberals like me, on the one hand, and people of genuine, strong Muslim faith who wanted a blasphemy law, on the other, I quite see that there is no equal protection of the law in their eyes—and there is not—so long as Christianity is given special protection against gross insult and other religions are not. The answer, surely, to the problem is not to seek to extend blasphemy law or to misuse the Bill that we are currently discussing and debating, but at last to bury, as has the Irish Supreme Court, the completely outmoded, almost mediaeval, crime of blasphemy.

Unfortunately, in a Written Answer of 24 February 2005, the Minister indicated that the Home Office does not apparently regard the offence of blasphemy as dead. In a further Written Answer the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, stated:

I protest at that. An official statement of that kind can only encourage bodies such as Christian Voice and the Christian Institute in their bigoted campaign against the BBC and the regional theatres to prevent public performances of "Jerry Springer—the Opera".

Whether the offence is abolished in this Bill or soon thereafter, it will not be abolished until the Bishops tell the Home Secretary that they are willing to see it abolished. I believe they have moved strongly in that direction and I very much hope that they will be able soon to give the green light so that we can legislate as we should do.

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