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Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I am very well aware of that. I am also aware that there is a statutory position for getting rid of obsolete legislation—by means of a Law Commission recommendation. All I am saying is that the amendment risks causing confusion.

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Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, another advantage of the Bill in its amended form is the ease with which we can discuss an issue as important as blasphemy. We are greatly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who has long campaigned on this issue, in delivering what I thought was a tour de force, aided and abetted by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, with his tour d'horizon.

We have had a very balanced debate. Some wise words of caution have been uttered. We have heard a powerful case for arguing that the rather aged law against blasphemy should be reviewed as part of the new settlement in this troubled area of the law. Does the Minister believe that the law of blasphemy can now coexist with the freedom of expression clause in this amended Bill or, indeed, with any slightly improved version of it?

As noble Lords will know, some saw in the Government's original Bill a vehicle not for abolishing the law of blasphemy but for extending it to religions other than Christianity. I believe that that shadow has now passed, and it is entirely right that we should now consider what settlement is appropriate and sustainable in this area in a highly diverse and liberal society. I am not saying that blasphemy has had its day but, in view of the clear view already expressed in this House on the question of freedom of expression in religious matters, I think that the burden of proof is now with those who wish the blasphemy laws to remain rather than those who would abolish them.

We have heard some very persuasive speeches on either side of the argument. My noble friend Lord Renton made a very good point about paragraph (c) of the amendment, which concerns,

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford referred to paragraph (b) concerning,

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right to say that other areas of the law cover that, but I think that the fact that he seeks to abolish not only
 
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blasphemy and blasphemous libel but also these other offences justifies my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern in saying ,"Let's tread carefully".

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, had a point when he talked about taking time and proceeding with caution in such a traditional area. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell made some very good points to justify pausing for a few moments before proceeding, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, also made a number of valid points. The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, summarised the position by referring to the doctrine of "unripe time"—a phrase that has been mentioned several times. It is a wonderful, glorious phrase. It is actually a complete paradox or oxymoron because time is never ripe, although many who have expressed views in the past have thought that it is.

My noble friend Lady O'Cathain made a very well argued speech, pointing up a number of issues that we must consider. Although the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, referred only to paragraph (a) and implicitly conceded that we also have to think carefully about paragraphs (b) and (c), I think that, mainly due to the intervention of the right reverend Prelate, the balance of argument has been on the side of consultation.

Although my noble friends will be voting in accordance with their conscience on those matters, there is some merit in pausing to consider what, in essence, the right reverend Prelate enunciated—namely, a red signal to this amendment but a green signal to the principle. We have to pause for a moment to try to work out what that means. I suppose it means that we should take a little time carefully to think through what we are doing; or it could mean that the Bishops' Bench want a little time to think through what their advice will be.

I do not think the argument that this is not the Bill holds up. In its truly amended form, it deals with this issue. Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has every right to say that this is the moment on which we have to reach a decision. Speaking for myself, however, I find it difficult to vote in favour of the amendment in the face of the red light from the Bishops' Bench and, indeed, some of the good speeches made by my noble and learned friends. On balance, therefore, I would side with caution and consultation, just as we went with caution and consultation about the whole text of the Bill a few moments ago.

I hope that consultation can be meaningful and speedy. The Government have said that they want their Bill, and that they have instanced the manifesto commitment. Surely, however, particularly in the light of this debate, there is a good argument for saying that we ought now to take the time to get this Bill right before we return it to the other place. I do not see the need of rushing to a date for Third Reading. Rather, as my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour said earlier, there is an argument perhaps for having a recommittal of the Bill, to go through it line by line in Committee.
 
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Why is there this rush? It is surely much more important that we get this right than we move speedily to get it wrong.

These issues are so important that I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, having initiated a good debate, will be content to wait for a further period of consultation before moving to a vote. In the mean time, I leave it to my noble and learned friends to exercise whatever decision the House may be asked to take on the grounds of their own conscience.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am glad that I did not rise to my feet more quickly. I did just as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, wanted—I paused. He has just summed up this debate with great skill, and saved me, I hope, the burden of inflicting what I would have said upon the House.

I agree with the noble Lord about caution and consultation. However, I say as clearly as I can: not in this Bill. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was right when he emphasised the Government's clear desire that this Bill should not be seen as a substitution for the blasphemy laws. There would be a deal of confusion if the two became conflated in the way that is suggested.

We have had an interesting and extensive debate. The hour and 20 minutes we have spent enjoying this debate has been well spent. We have ranged over the full course of the dispute. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, clearly said that it is needed. Others said that it may be needed, but that it needs to mutate. That is clear from the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley, and the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, among others. If we know one thing about this area, it is that we do not currently have agreement. That says something very powerful. The Government recognise the importance of these issues but, like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, do not believe that this is the appropriate time to consider the abolition of blasphemy.

For the purposes of completion, I say to my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis that blasphemy was, in fact, ruled out of scope in the Commons. It came back in because, as noble Lords will know, amendments are not discussed in that way. There is an issue as to whether it is in or out of scope, therefore, but it is quite proper that we debate it at this stage. So while we are grateful for the consideration given to this matter by all noble Lords today, by noble Lords in the Select Committee in 2003 and earlier by the Law Commission, we are aware that there has not been wider consideration of this matter. It is particularly important, given the emotive nature of the issues, that they receive full parliamentary scrutiny, especially in the light of the fact that public opinion is also divided on the subject.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has also made it clear that the Government are not prepared to legislate on blasphemy without first consulting with a range of faith and other interests. Many leaders from faiths not protected by the law on
 
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blasphemy see the symbolic protection for religion as important. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is also keen that any legislation in this area should take place with the full involvement of the Church of England. In the past, there has been confusion between incitement to religious hatred and blasphemy and we should try to put an end to that confusion. Therefore, I am keen that we do not add to it by addressing both issues in the same Bill, especially as we try to chart a rather tortuous path through some of the difficulties with which we are currently faced.

The Government believe that incitement should be bedded down before moving on and looking at the detail of blasphemy. Therefore, although I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for raising these issues, I say, in the words of my noble friend Lord Wedderburn, that the time is not ripe. On this occasion, the phrase is correct. We have moved a long way, but we cannot quite say that we have considered all views and that this is the time for the abolition of blasphemy. I hope that the noble Lord will not find it necessary to test the opinion of the House, either now or before the Bill leaves this House.


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