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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, the amendment goes wide of the purposes of the Bill. In no way do I dissent from the fundamental arguments that have been adduced in favour of the amendment, but I remain to be convinced that the noble Lords who tabled the amendment have chosen the right vehicle. The measure being considered is highly important, and I do not dissent from the view that the purpose of the amendment is also important, but I am not convinced that this Bill is the right vehicle.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, said that the present situation is untenable, and I agree with him. He seemed to concede in his concluding remarks that perhaps another Bill should be introduced. I wholly agree with
 
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that. I was very interested in what he had to say, but it was totally irrelevant. We should aim at dealing with the issues in this Bill.

It is entirely open to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to come forward with another Bill, which I should welcome. But to choose this Bill is entirely misconceived, as I have sought to adduce in this short intervention. I believe that the Bill is aimed at dealing with an immediate situation and should not be confused with the issues that the amendment seeks to deal with.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I have listened to the debate with considerable interest, and I shall not argue that a case cannot be made for the abolition of the current blasphemy law. I shall not even argue that it cannot be done in this Bill—it may be within the scope of the Long Title.

Earlier this afternoon we had a debate about timing, and when it was appropriate for amendments to be introduced and considered by the House. We are on Report and a pretty fundamental amendment has been tabled. It covers not only the basic issue of blasphemy but in the proposed new subsections (b) and (c), as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, said, it deals with other matters, such as the disturbance of religious services. We need to consider carefully appropriate legislation to deal with such offences, not only in the Christian religion but in others, too. I sense that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is conscious of the strength of the arguments because I, too, noticed the manner in which he concluded his remarks. He spoke about the Bishops coming forward at some point and giving a green light to legislation. He then said that it could not be this afternoon or at this stage in the Bill's proceedings.

It has been an interesting debate. It is perfectly sensible for this matter to be raised, and for a signal to be given that we should consider it in a more appropriate way in the future. However, it would be totally wrong to move forward with the clause as it stands at this stage when there will be no proper opportunity to consider the wider implications or whether any substitutes are needed to avoid disturbance of religious services. For those reasons, I could not support the amendment.

Lord Plant of Highfield: My Lords, as one of the authors of the amendment, I should like to say a brief word in its favour. As the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Lester, have pointed out, the social basis of the blasphemy laws has been entirely eroded. They developed as a common law offence to protect religious belief when it was thought that religious belief, particularly Christian belief, was part of the essential social glue, underpinning the law and the monarchy. Whatever the social glue of a modern society is, it is not generated purely by one religion or one denomination. It seems clear that the doctrines and formulae of the Church of England are given special treatment under the blasphemy laws, so the social basis of the laws has been eroded.

There are three important arguments, particularly given what my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis said about whether this was relevant to the Bill. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, we go back to the Gay
 
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News
trial, Lord Scarman argued that the blasphemy laws, or something like them, should be extended to cover all other religions. The danger is that the Bill will be seen by many people as doing that; it is not what the Government or Parliament intend, but a lot of people think that that is what is being done. To remove or rescind the blasphemy laws would make it crystal clear that we were not following Lord Scarman's injunction of extending the blasphemy laws to all other religions.

Secondly, abolition would clarify the nature of the Bill. The Government have argued that it is not an extension of the blasphemy laws but there is little doubt that some Muslim leaders have thought that that is what they are going to get. The abolition of the blasphemy laws would make it crystal clear that that is not the case and would therefore clarify the nature of the Bill. I support the amendment because I think it makes the nature of the Bill much clearer.

Finally, the Government have argued all along that the Bill as it was first conceived, and still to a very large extent as amended, draws a distinction between belief and believers. For the reasons I gave at Second Reading, that is not a distinction I find very convincing; nevertheless, it is what the Bill turns on. Given that, the blasphemy laws protect beliefs and not believers. Therefore, we would have two pieces of protective religious legislation on the statute book—the Bill, if it becomes an Act, and the blasphemy laws—both embodying contradictory principles. The Bill emphasises the distinction between belief and believer and protects the believer, not the belief. The blasphemy laws protect the belief and, via the Bill, would also protect the believer. However, the blasphemy laws in themselves protect the belief.

It would clarify the nature of the Bill and the distinction between beliefs and believer to accept this amendment. It would not do, as a way of trying to resist the amendment, to say that the Human Rights Act has made all this irrelevant, otiose or redundant. If it is redundant, we might as well get rid of it because it gives us too many reasons for people to be dissatisfied by what they think of as unequal treatment before the law, depending on which their religious beliefs. For those reasons, I put my name to the amendment. Unlike my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, I think that it is central to clarifying the nature of this Bill.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, although I do not think that anyone would accuse either the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, or the noble Lord, Lord Lester, of being excessively brief in their remarks, they said absolutely nothing about either subsections (b) or (c) of their amendment, which would abolish a "distinct offence", whatever that may mean,

and a,

whatever that phrase may mean.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I specifically said that I did not want to go over the whole of the ground that was
 
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dealt with by the Law Commission. If the noble Lord would like to refer to the report of 1985, he will find that this formulation of words was recommended by the Law Commission 20 years ago.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, but that is perhaps not a great help to those who are being asked to decide on this matter at this moment.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, it may well be that we need a new offence of disturbing religious services of any kind rather than merely Christian services, to which I suspect—though I know not—this amendment only applies. However, surely no one can doubt that religious services and religious devotions are entitled to a greater degree of protection against disturbance than, let us say, public meetings at Hyde Park Corner. Surely to propose to abolish, without any words of explanation, the present offence of disturbing a religious service without putting anything in its place is asking the House to do something ridiculous. For that reason, and because the amendment contains subsections (b) and (c) as well as subsection (a), I suggest to the House that this amendment must fail.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I nearly put my name to this amendment, but, through a failure of timing, it does not appear. The crime of blasphemy, in its medieval origin, is very understandable, but it has shrunk, should shrink further, and should be disposed of by your Lordships, if necessary, today. Of course, I quite understand the argument which Professor Francis Cornford called the principle of unripe time in his little book, Microcosmographia Academica, which was written for fellows of a particular college who engaged in academic politics. He suggested that such readers, when met by the principle that the time is not ripe, should say, "That is to say that the just and right thing should not be done now for fear of doing more just and right things in the immediate future". For all the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Plant, it is plainly appropriate and sensible to deal with this matter in this Bill.

Very little has been said, except by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, about the nature of blasphemy. It began as a denial of the truth of the Christian religion, the Bible, The Book of Common Prayer or the existence of God—I summarise from the best textbook. That was understandable as a medieval offence, but everybody felt uncomfortable with it as the 19th century began to edge out that summary of the cases between 1514 and 1841. The courts began to say that the offence was not quite just because it was a manifest block on sensible freedom of discussion, a concept that the 19th century began gradually to understand. They came to say that it was such a thing only if it led to a risk of breach of the peace. Lord Sumner said judicially that blasphemous words were punishable,


 
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Of course, there are plenty of other crimes that punish people for causing civil strife or the like. Those words were said in 1917, but that was not an easy position to maintain.

4.30 pm

So we come to the modern cases, where they tend to say—again, this is a summary—that it is blasphemy if the words are couched in indecent or offensive terms likely to shock and outrage the general body of Christian believers in the community. Now, even those who sit on the Benches of the right reverend Prelates are not so easily outraged now as when that summary was first given many decades ago. There are, of course, always traps for the unwary. In the case that Mrs Whitehouse brought against Gay News, that formula was put forward in rather strong terms. When we look at it now, we think that those involved in Mrs Whitehouse's case, in 1979, perhaps discussed things in a way that is not appropriate to modern times.

It is surely time to say that this particular privilege for the Christian religion has gone away and officially gone a distance that is far from modern mores and thinking. That particular privilege should not be on the statute book for that religion. I said "the Christian religion", but it is not at all clear that it covers the whole religion. The better view appears to be—I see my noble friend Lord Lester nodding, and on this he is indeed my noble friend—that only the Church of England can make use of that particular crime.


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