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"ABOLITION OF CERTAIN RELIGIOUS OFFENCES (NO. 2)
Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 (c. 32) is hereby repealed."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed a comment on that vote. I believe that the Minister will agree that it was worth putting the amendment to a Division because it demonstrated a radical change in the opinion in your Lordships' House since we last debated blasphemy. It is moving in the direction that I would like to see—that of total abolition—and we probably would have got there had there been a free vote on the Government's side of the House as there was on this side. I will leave the Minister to reflect on that and on whether it is appropriate to embark on yet another round of consultation to substitute for the work that has already been done at such great length by the Select Committee, as she acknowledges.

Of all the statutory offences against religion that are left over from the 19th century and examined by the Select Committee on Religious Offences, the only one that has been used in recent years is Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act, which forbids,


 
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It is also an offence under this section to,

That extends also to ceremonies held in a churchyard or burial ground.

The question is not whether churches, mosques or gurdwaras need the protection of the law against people who might disrupt their services or other religious activities but whether they should have some additional safeguards which are not available in secular premises, and, if so, whether this elderly statute is the right answer. As far as non-Christian places of worship are concerned, they do not appear to see the ECJA as useful considering that only a very small fraction of them have registered under the 1855 Act. It has never been used, to the best of our knowledge, in relation to any place of worship other than a church of the established Church. The Select Committee found it extremely difficult to obtain any statistics and the Home Office acknowledged that its figures were unreliable because of errors in the procedure for coding offences in the courts.

The Home Office was unable to identify any of the cases behind the statistics. Separate inquiries by the Select Committee unearthed details of two convictions which were classified as ECJA but where charges of criminal damage had been preferred at the same time and the courts had ultimately convicted under that heading. The third case where details were available was the very well known one of Mr Peter Tatchell, who was prosecuted in 1998 for causing a disturbance in Canterbury Cathedral, I believe while the Archbishop was preaching. The stipendiary magistrate fined him £18.60, showing neatly what the court thought of the case. But if disturbances were considered serious enough to justify prosecution, they could be dealt with under the Public Order Act and, if the offence was found to be religiously aggravated, the offender would be liable on summary conviction to a sentence not exceeding six months' imprisonment.

Since the Select Committee's report, the data for 2003 have been published showing that there were three prosecutions and one conviction during the year. Assuming that the initial charge was correctly recorded, the conviction may well have been for some other offence, as with the 2002 cases I have mentioned. We have no means of knowing. The Home Office is obviously not interested or it would have taken steps to collect the information when it was put on notice of the difficulties that were experienced by the Select Committee. The data for 2004 have yet to be published—they are due on 17 November—but the Home Office has kindly allowed me a preview and I can tell your Lordships that so far this year there have been 15 prosecutions, resulting in 10 acquittals, four findings of guilty—in two cases a fine was imposed, in one a community sentence and in one imprisonment—and one under the heading "otherwise dealt with".

Churchwatch, an organisation that monitors offences of all kinds on church premises, believes that the ECJA is a convenient means of dealing with
 
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disrespectful conduct falling short of actual criminality, such as eating or smoking in church, men wearing hats or going bare-chested, or skateboarding in churchyards. Some churches have printed notices with the text of Section 2 and their own explanation of the meaning of the word "indecent", which they give to people engaging in such activities and ask them to leave the premises. They find that often this works. But they also acknowledge that the same result might be achieved by using printed copies of Section 4A of the Public Order Act.

These minor breaches of good taste and decency have to be seen in the context of a general deterioration in standards of behaviour, including respect for places of worship and ministers of religion, and a steep growth in crimes against persons and property belonging to churches, which, sadly, has led to many being locked except during services. That is not a problem that we can deal with here by legislation, and certainly not by the archaic language of the ECJA, which is unfamiliar territory to most prosecutors and the public.

The ECJA has been superseded by modern laws on criminal damage and public order. It is hardly ever used, as I have demonstrated, and it is not of sufficient consequence for the Home Office to bother keeping reliable statistics or enabling the cases to which they refer to be retrieved. This is a good opportunity for Parliament to remove a piece of clutter from the statute book. I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for raising this issue. As he has identified, Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act provides protection from low-level public mischief taking place in churches of the established Church to other registered places of worship. As a point of information, it is important that we recognise that 1,587 non-Christian places of worship were registered under the Religious Places of Worship Act 1855 at the time of the Select Committee's report. Therefore, they, too, are eligible under the ECJA for protection. Unlike blasphemy and a number of the other offences to which the noble Lord has referred in the past, this provision is used, as is demonstrated by the figures cited by the noble Lord.

The Select Committee on Religious Offences heard evidence from the Director of Public Prosecutions that it provides a route to prosecution for some forms of undesirable behaviour which would not be covered by other parts of the law. So it is not otiose. Although prosecutions have been few in recent times, the Director of Public Prosecutions told the committee—I am sure the noble Lord will remember this—that it was used sufficiently regularly for it to be considered a useful offence. We are dealing with a single-issue Bill today and, as with blasphemy, we are very keen to have a single message and to convey it with clarity. It is for that reason that we consider it unhelpful to cloud the issue with further matters which may cause unnecessary confusion. It is quite right that these and
 
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some of the other issues to which we will turn shortly may well be properly the subject of further discussion, but not in this Bill.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the Minister is right to cite the DPP's assertion that this offence provided a means of dealing with offences that were not covered by other parts of the criminal law. However, she omitted to add that the DPP, when challenged, also was unable to provide the committee with details of a single case where someone had been prosecuted for the offence. As I have said, when we looked into the matter we found that some of the offences were misclassified because the code number used by the courts began with three digits, which applied to some 50 or 60 other miscellaneous offences, and the clerks entering the details into the computer frequently made mistakes. Also, as I have explained, prosecutions under the ECJA were accompanied by charges brought under some other statute, and the statistics collected by the Home Office do not reveal what the ultimate conviction was for; they reveal only what the charges were. So if a person is charged with two different offences, and the main one happens to be under the ECJA, the figures are not corrected to cover the changes that may have been made during the proceedings.

I continue to assert that not only is the offence used very rarely but that, where it is used, it could very well be dealt with by some other provision in the criminal law. I can see, however, that I am not going to persuade the Minister of that today. I shall reflect on what she said and I may well come back to the matter at Third Reading. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


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