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The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I would like to reiterate that I agree with him in principle. Would he not agree that, although what he said applies to paragraph (a) of the new clause, paragraph (b), which states that,
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for his intervention. I repeat: my remarks were addressed to the first part of the amendment and not the section to which he refers.
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, may I add one voice to the amendment? I did not add my name to fourth place because I hoped that someone from the Benches not represented by those who tabled the amendment would do so. I believe there is a broad consensus outside the House for change.
My noble friend Lord Plant gave far more eloquently than I can all the reasons why the amendment ought to be supported. I understand the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on timing. I ask the Minister to tell us what the Government can say in respect of consultation with the bishops and others on the matter?
First, the blasphemy law is out of date. Would we sit down today to consider a blasphemy law for any religion? No, we would not. Secondly, the Church of England does not require the law. The Church is strong enough and important enough not to need such protection. This is a Christian country. Its religion is accepted by the state. It is not a secular state, although there are many people in this country who do not realise that there is a state religion. We are moving towards a loosening of the ties between state and Church. That will benefit both bodies. There was a
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time when the state and the Church badly needed each other to keep order. That is not the case today. The Church of England does not need this archaic blasphemy law to protect it.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am usually on the side of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, but not on this occasion, I fear, because if this question of blasphemy is not dealt with, and dealt with now, there will be a continual niggle between the Christian Church and other Churches. It is important that that niggle is removed. Only by removing the blasphemy laws can we remove it.
A number of speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, have said that this Bill is not the right vehicle for these amendments, but if it is in order within the Long Title, it is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. All sorts of Bills are amended in the Commons and in this House because amendments can be got in within the Long Title. Noble Lords should not be seduced by the view that the Bill is not an appropriate vehicle. It is. The amendment is perfectly legitimate, and now is the time for this matter to be settled. As the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, said, that would then give the House of Commons the opportunity to have a go at it, too.
There is another reason why we should deal with this matter tonight. We all welcome the remarks and the position set out by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. He has indicated, as did the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, that the Church of England itself is ready for abolition of the blasphemy law. It is true that they say, "Not yet, not through this Bill", but if they agree in principle with abolition, and that that would assist in achieving peace, if I can put it that way, between the religions, why not consider it and vote for it today? I realise that there are only two Bishops on the Bishops' Bench, but perhaps a few telephone calls could go out to bring in others to support the amendment. I hope that we can reach a conclusion on this matter and we should thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for introducing the amendment.
Lord Slynn of Hadley: My Lords, I am not persuaded by what has been said so far: that the crime of blasphemy no longer performs any useful purpose. But it is wholly unacceptable that it should be confined to the Christian religion and, perhaps, it is even more unacceptable if it is confined to the Anglican Church.
The stronger arguments at the moment are not in favour of abolishing the crime altogether, but considering its application to at least the three Abrahamic faiths. That is the issue that should be debated in depth, not simply abolition. For that reason, although I do not often disagree with the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Lester, I oppose the amendment.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, perhaps he will
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clarify his position. Would he therefore exclude any similar criminal liability in respect of those who do not have faith in any religion? Would they be in an unequal minority?
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that that argument was considered and rejected by the three-judge divisional court of Lord Justice Tasker Watkins and by the European Commission of Human Rights in the Salman Rushdie case, on the ground that it would be divisive, arbitrary and anomalous and capable of causing division between Muslims and Christians to extend an obsolete offence to all religions?
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, spoke of the doctrine of "unripe time". That has a place in some situations, but it is particularly important not to try to do too much in one Bill. It has been generally recognised that there has been a good deal of confusion about exactly what the Bill proposes. If the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, are encompassed in the Bill, the confusion will be even greater.
In so far as the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, is concerned, it seems perfectly possible for people to understand that the reason for rejecting the common law offence of blasphemy, were this amendment agreed to, was that the Bill replaces that law, whereas the Government have been very careful to point out as often as they can that it is quite different. The other point is that the foundation of the argument advanced on behalf of those not protected by the racial discrimination law is that it protects Sikhs and Jews in a way that it does not protect the other religions, including Christianity. That is one of the bases on which this Bill has been put forward.
Those issues are not simple, and to complicate them in this way would be highly undesirable. I feel certain that if this amendment were agreed to, many would think that we had embarked on a very different course from that on which the Government believe they have embarked and on which we spoke earlier. I may be wrong, but I had the impression that this was the Government's view in dealing with suggestions of amendments about blasphemy before.
The second and third branches of these amendments require a good deal of consideration. One of the most damaging offences committed at the moment is desecration of religious cemeteries. Although the
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offences referred to in the amendments are not quite that, they are quite similar. I counsel caution in extending the scope of this Bill at this juncture.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the common law offences in paragraphs (b) and (c) have not been used within living memory and that plenty of modern offences exist that enable the prosecution of people committing acts of desecration and violence in cemeteries or churches?
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