Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, but I am going to be very careful in what I say for this simple reason: I do not want to say anything which is likely to make it more difficult to reach an agreement with the Government along the lines that were suggested earlier today. Therefore I will make only a couple of points. Firstly, one should not seek to define religion by Act of Parliament. The Human Rights Act 1998 did not do so; neither does the European Convention on Human Rights. If this definition were to be regarded as appropriate to theistic religions, it would not be regarded as appropriate to, for example, Buddhism. As I understand it, that is not a theistic religion. That may be a boring and technical reason, perhaps an important one, but it is one which anyone who has followed the Charities Bill will understand. The Government eventually changed the whole approach on the meaning of religion in the Charities Bill to make clear that it included non-theistic religions, especially Buddhism.

That is beside the point, because the main point which the noble Lord makes is that one should only criminalise freedom of expression where, in his words, there is,

8 Nov 2005 : Column 555

That was the approach of Oliver Wendell Holmes, of Justice Brandeis and of Justice Cardozo in all the great American free speech cases. On one reading, it is also the approach under the European Convention on Human Rights. I have great sympathy for that point, and for limiting the scope of what we have to a justifiable and immediate fear of violence, or something resembling it. However, I believe that the amendments passed by your Lordships' House in Committee strike a fair balance between freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the right to equal treatment without discrimination, a fair criminal process and the principle of legal certainty and proportionality, and so on.

I hope that the Minister will respond fully to the important speech made this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. However, speaking for myself, were the House to divide and accept the amendment, it would make it that much more difficult to secure overall agreement within the principles—and the three essential safeguards—that your Lordships' House has already approved.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I am reminded of the remark recently made by Madonna; that Tom Cruise could do what he liked, even if he wants to worship a turtle. It does not bother her if some people worship turtles as superior beings. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, anticipated something that I wanted to say. This definition of religion certainly does not cover Buddhism, Sikhism or Jainism. None of those three belief systems would be covered by a belief either in God or in a supreme being. In the case of Sikhs, they might actually worship a book—the Guru Granth Sahib—or, in the Jain case, a number of gurus. If we are to have a definition of religion, and whether we do is a matter for the Government to choose, I would wish for the definition to be cast much wider than it currently is. Certainly, it should cover all religions.

I was once asked by someone, in an application for the Charity Commission, whether I supported Scientology being a religion. Since I believe anything can be a religion, I said "Yes". Therefore I wrote a definition that a religion was, more or less, a coherent set of inconsistent, irrational beliefs about the nature of the universe. The scientologists objected to my definition and asked me to withdraw the letter in their support. But there is, possibly, some point in defining religion, provided we can do it broadly enough so that all religions can be covered by it.

6.15 pm

Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, I rise strongly to support my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil, who made some important points. I think that even he would admit that it is difficult to find a perfect definition. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, reminded me that in the Charities Bill—which we shall shortly be discussing—the Government attempt to define religion. Clause 2(3) of that Bill states that religion is to include:

8 Nov 2005 : Column 556

It is difficult to find the right definition, as my noble friend has conceded. But that in no way detracts from the valid points that he made in a commendably brief and remarkably succinct speech—which, as I say, I strongly support. His reference to "likely to" was a particularly important intervention.

I hope that my noble friend is wrong, and that the Minister does not still hanker after the old Bill. As I understand what she said earlier today, she is prepared, in a spirit of compromise, to accept the new infrastructure of the Bill—which has been agreed by this House in Committee—and will now seek ways in which to improve the wording. I hope she will be able to tell my noble friend that she accepts many of his points, and that they will be included as we deliberate on the best way forward. The noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Lester, are quite right. We must be mindful of those who so strongly believe in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and a number of other key religions. My noble friend admitted that we must proceed with the utmost caution. Yet it is important that his points are answered in this debate, and continue to be answered in the discussions which lie ahead.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, has set me a difficult challenge. I am to avoid piety and agreement in an egregious manner with Members on the opposite Bench and still answer his questions. I hope to be able to do that in a way which satisfies him. The Deputy Chief Whip tells me that it would be almost a physical impossibility for a Home Office Minister, of whatever complexion, not to hanker after the old Bill. But I can tell your Lordships that it is a temptation which I find very easy to resist, because I am a total realist and pragmatist about where we now find ourselves.

The most important thing now is to try to chart a way through this issue and bring consensus. I hope that I outlined clearly in my comments earlier today that we have accepted the construct and framework set out by the view expressed by the Committee when we dealt comprehensively with those matters. We are looking with a great deal of purposeful energy at how we can express better the freedom of expression criterion so that it does not do violence to our ability to prosecute these offences. It should honour the real concern which was expressed all around the House—just as volubly, indeed, from our own Benches—that freedom of expression has to be preserved and promoted in a way with which others will feel content. There are more difficulties, and I have set out what they are. My hope and aspiration is that we will be able to mediate a way through them to arrive at consensus. That is certainly what we—each of us, as I understood it—have set our minds to achieving. So I hope that in that sense we shall be able to satisfy noble Lords.

The noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Hunt, have already referred to the reasons why we believe that a definition would be unhelpful in this regard, and
8 Nov 2005 : Column 557
unnecessary. I am sure, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made clear, that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, accepts that his definition does not cover all the religions that are recognised as the major religions—and Buddhism has been mentioned among others.

I agree with what was said about the European Convention on Human Rights. The definition advocated in this amendment is not as comprehensive or rigorous as the approach to the meaning of religion adopted by the courts in relation to the convention. That approach requires a religion that contains a coherent set of beliefs. All those are things with which I believe that we probably agree—and I know that the noble Lord's amendment is a very piercing probing amendment to ensure that I do not slip off the straight and narrow. I assure him that I know the direction of travel in which we shall have to go to settle this matter—if it can be settled—in a way that is honourable, fair and delivers what we would all wish to see.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, after such graciousness I can hardly keep my feet—I am slipping all over the place. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. On a point of definition, I have never been proud of any definition that I have expressed yet; this one was borrowed from the Public Bill Office, and I thought that it did awfully well for the occasion—it was quite enough. But as it is not likely to be immortal, I see no reason to apologise for it.

I have one comment to make to the Minister, who is always so nice. She spoke about "we" looking with "purposeful energy". I could contemplate the Minister herself looking with purposeful energy at me or almost anything else, but the idea of some of her colleagues looking at things with purposeful energy frightens me greatly. Nevertheless, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page