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After that enjoyable and irrelevant diversion, I come to the actual Act, having its background in 17th century law and so forth. The unworkability of this Act has to be balanced against its symbolic nature. Although I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, I understand the feeling of its symbolic character. There is nothing wrong with a law that has a symbolic nature, but it is a question of whether it is workable and that is where the balance may tip in the negative direction.

Finally, noble Lords may wonder how we will all vote. I cannot speak for the other Bishops—we are a very independent breed. Not even archbishops can tell us how to vote, least of all the General Synod, and it is a question of which way the balance tips. For myself, having lived through the experience of the Select Committee and listened to all the different evidence, I am quite clear that the blasphemy law should be repealed and be replaced by a law about incitement to religious hatred. That is easier said than done, and I remember long conversations about how “incitement” can be defined, and—in those days, we were perhaps thinking less clearly than we are now—the difference between religious hatred and racial hatred. I am sympathetic to those who want to argue for freedom of speech, but the law of incitement to religious hatred is hardly one that could be equated with some mythical law against the journalistic incitement of archiepiscopal ridicule—I do not think that we are quite into that, although some of us might dream of that possibility in more facetious hours. We have a fairly adequate although not perfect law about religious hatred. Therefore we should repeal the blasphemy law as an act of realism and of generosity, but certainly not as one of secularisation.

6.15 pm

Lord Elton: The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth is back in bouncing form on the Bishops’ Bench, but could I persuade him that there is another path to take with honour and satisfaction? I was not going to take part until the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, rose and trailed the name of Dawkins and TheGod Delusion. I recommend that he reads a better and more recent book, The Dawkins Delusion?, which I am glad to see he has in his hand. The noble Lord's principal objection to the blasphemy law is that it does not work and is not used and that it is cluttering the statute book. I have yet to discover what harm is done by clutter on the statute book. It may incense people such as the noble and learned Lords, but it does not disturb most of us.

Lord Avebury: Like several other noble Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred to the Act. It is not an Act: it is not on the statute book. It is common law.

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Lord Elton: In that case, it cannot clutter anything.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: The noble Lord will accept that I referred both to the statute and to common law as it stood. The point that I sought to make, which I may not have made succinctly, is that where you have a law that is seldom used but broken daily on thousands of occasions, and a blind eye is turned to that, you are corrupting the sovereignty of that law and it is better to remove it.

Lord Elton: I take that point, but you have to consider the alternative. We have had demonstrated to us very forcefully today by our mail bags, the press and, most notably, by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain, that the law has enormous symbolic importance. The noble Lord mentioned that my late and learned friend Lord Hailsham had said that his client did not need costs. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said that the client does not need defence, but that is not what the blasphemy law seeks to defend. It seeks to defend our image of our maker and our concept of our society. What is offended when people bring it into ridicule is our sense of who we are and what this nation is. Therefore, we need to look at this not in the high-flown language of the courts or the acerbic language of theology, but at what is proper in Parliament—pragmatism. The pragmatic situation is that, until very recently, there was no proposal on the Floor of the House to make this change in the law. It will greatly offend a large section of our society as a gesture towards secularism. Even if it is not that, that is how it will be seen. That is troubling the waters of our social life quite unnecessarily. The pragmatic thing is to let that sleeping dog lie, as Walpole would have said.

The Earl of Onslow: Surely great faith does not need the protection of blasphemy laws: it is great enough not to need them. That is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, and I were making. If your faith is so dodgy that a few people making obscene jokes about Jesus will upset it, your faith is not as strong as I believe it to be.

Lord Elton: I was not talking about faith: I was talking about the perception of the British people of who they are, and our concept of the fabric of our society being woven out of a Christian history. People who fly against that fly against the nature of this country, which is under attack from a whole mass of different pressures. It is simply unnecessary and unwise to add to that now.

Lord Davies of Coity: The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, talked about the faith of the people, but the perception will be that the law is trying to undermine that faith.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I did not intend to speak at any great length about this, but listening to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, I was struck by a sermon that was preached in my church, which is a Scottish Episcopal Church, by the rector some months ago in response to the legal judgment that was made on the Jerry Springer case. I remember

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the sermon very vividly, which I have to say is not true of all his sermons although they are very good. Our church usually has a congregation of about 25 on a Sunday. I often wonder what it is like to work very hard on a sermon, preach it to 25 people and work in a society which is increasingly secular and in which our religion is increasingly subject to attack from the media and other sources. In that sermon, he expressed dismay that no one was prepared to stand up and defend God and the integrity of Christ, and that the ruling which had been made in respect of the blasphemy law was sending out a signal which made it much more difficult to do the work of the church. I sensed anxiety in the right reverend Prelate’s speech about the signal that was being sent.

I am the last person to argue that laws should be put on the statute book in order to send a signal. Of course, that would be wrong. But removing them also sends a signal. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, talked about cluttering up the statute book, which is being dealt with. However, there are at least 140 pages in this Bill that will clutter up the statute book in addition to all the other criminal justice Bills that we have had. I do not think the Government should give as a reason for introducing this measure that we should remove from the statute book laws which have not been implemented, far less put into force. That is not a wise stance for the Government to adopt. However, I am very confused by the argument which appears to be that this law is not used, is in disrepute and is unenforceable. If that is the case, why is it necessary to remove it from the statute book? On the one hand, it is suggested that it is a redundant law and, on the other, that it creates particular problems.

For example, I think it is still the case that under parliamentary privilege the Speaker has powers to summon any journalist who is in contempt of the House to the Bar of the House of Commons and can send him to prison. These powers still exist. The Government and no one else have suggested that they should be repealed because they are no longer used. However, they exist because they uphold the standing and status of Parliament. I believe there is a parallel here. No one expects the Speaker, however provoked he may be these days, to use these powers, but no one would argue that they should be removed as that would damage the status and standing of Parliament. I believe that the Government’s last-minute attempt to remove these blasphemy laws causes similar concern and is an assault on the very deeply held beliefs of those within the church. It is quite unnecessary for the reasons they have spelt out; namely, that the law is almost unenforceable and not used. I very much support my noble friend Lady O’Cathain. It is a very sad day for many committed Christians that the Church of England has not argued with an undivided voice for the retention of this legislation on the statute book.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: I hope that your Lordships will indulge one more Bishop speaking. These Benches have just been presented with quite a challenge and I hope that we do not respond in the acerbic language of theology. I was not aware that theological language was acerbic, but that is the kind of language one hears in some places. Rather, I think

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there are more fundamental issues here than have yet been addressed. There is an irony here. Let’s face it, we in this country and in the western world are in the middle of a stand-off between secularism, for want of a better word, and fundamentalism, for want of a better word. When you are in that polarised situation, the danger is that anyone who tries to have something reasonable which is neither of those is shot at from both sides as though they are colluding with whichever side the shooter does not happen to like. The secularists clearly want to abolish the blasphemy laws for the same reason that they want to abolish the establishment and lots of other things. The fundamentalists want to keep the blasphemy laws for the same reason; namely, in my view a mistaken belief that this forms an absolute linchpin of the Christian establishment and that if you pull it out the whole lot will come tumbling down. I simply do not believe that. I defy anyone on these Benches or elsewhere to call me a liberal for it. I think that my friends here would be surprised to know that the Bishop of Durham happened to be a liberal. That may have been the case in times past but I hope that is not the case at present.

As some noble Lords will know, I was invited to give a lecture at the London School of Economics three weeks ago. It is a strange place for a Bishop to lecture in; a sort of high temple of secularism. I argued as strongly as I could that the Christian faith should be considered an honoured, valued and fundamental part of our society and, indeed, argued for the establishment of the church. I just about got away with my life. It was an interesting experience. So I am not going to collude with the secularists for one minute. But here is the paradox and it is the paradox of democracy itself; namely, that democracy has to tolerate some forces which might make for its overthrow, otherwise, it is not being true to itself as a democracy. Likewise, for Christians at the heart of the Christian faith there is a re-evaluation of power which is focused on Jesus himself, who refused to be defended and, indeed, spoke very severely to one of his followers who got out his sword to try to protect him. Rather, he was content to be mocked, spat at and ultimately crucified precisely on, interestingly, a charge of blasphemy, which was then transformed into a charge of sedition.

Edward Shillito, one of the First World War poets, wrote:

“The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak,And not a god has wounds but Thou alone”.

It is because I uphold that at the centre of my Christian faith that I find it very odd then to think of mounting laws to say that we must defend Jesus against wounds today. When Christians say, as we do, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow—as the noble Baroness quoted from Philippians—that is a statement of sure and certain faith about the future, not a statement of social policy to be enforced by statute. It subverts the normal types of power; it does not imitate them. Therefore, I fear that the existing law, by appearing to defend Jesus—as some Christian groups are insisting it does—is in an odd paradoxical relationship at best with the Jesus of the Gospels. This

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is a biblical and Christian argument for abolition. I am sorry to have to make it at a time when the head of steam happens to have come from secularism but it is an argument that I have made over the past 20 years whenever I have been asked about it and that happens to coincide with things that have come from the other place with the secularist tag on, to which the noble Baroness drew our attention.

Of course there is such a thing as offensive behaviour. Recently in the BALTIC on Tyneside, in my diocese, there was a deeply offensive statue of Jesus which I shall not even attempt to describe—I was going to say in a family newspaper but I should say in your Lordships' House. If that statue had been proposed of any other religious leader, I wonder whether the museum would have allowed it to be seen. That is a problem but in my view that should not be dealt with by a blasphemy law but rather under other statutes—which we are getting—dealing with offensive and inflammatory public behaviour. Recent legislation has attempted to address that and we are grateful for it although, as my noble friends here have said, we could have wished that this issue had come up after that new legislation had had a chance to be road tested in the courts. We look eagerly to see how the Government and the courts might apply it.

Rather, what we need is protection for groups, communities and individuals who are at risk. We look to this Government to provide that as they have said. Some people are vulnerable in this respect. Public order is vulnerable when there is gratuitous and inflammatory material. Therefore, I hope it is clear that in supporting the government amendment I am not for one minute colluding with the mood towards secularism, liberalism or any such agendas. I am grateful for assurances on this subject. Actually, if paradoxically, I am doing my best to work through the implications of the fact that it is Jesus himself, not some power-hungry demigod of the same name, who stands at the heart of the faith professed by over 70 per cent of people in our country and whose strange presence continues to haunt and challenge our culture in ways that many understandably find disturbing but to which we on these Benches do our best to bear witness.

6.30 pm

Baroness Park of Monmouth: I did not intend to intervene. However, I strongly support what my noble friend Lord Elton said. We have to remember that the ordinary person out there does not read Hansard and that the press will certainly not report this debate except in some mischievous and irrelevant way. An enormous number of ordinary Christians, some of whom are rather old like me, feel threatened and vulnerable. It is good that the country will have a Bill covering incitement to hatred, but that must happen before any other signal is sent. If you wait for that and you send this signal now, you are abandoning those people, who already feel pretty threatened. They are often surrounded by unfriendly communities. It is true that they have not thought much about this; they probably do not even get to church. However, that does not alter the fact that they are Christians and that they feel that this is a Christian country in which

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they have a right to some defence and consideration. The Government now say, “Forget blasphemy. It is out of date, very difficult to apply and totally irrelevant”. They must also say, “We will have an incitement to hatred Bill that will protect ordinary people and their faith”.

We also have to remember that we are not alone in the world. There are Christians in Africa and all sorts of places who already feel pretty threatened. If we as a Christian country say, “Actually, it doesn’t matter very much because the blasphemy law is inapplicable and nobody really took it seriously”, that will not help ordinary Christians who are simple and do not say much about their faith, but who care and want to be protected. I beg the Committee to consider that we should not dismiss this lightly unless something positive is said and done to protect people and to make them feel protected and valued. A lot of them feel very undervalued. I hope that the right reverend Prelates will forgive me, but I am sorry to say that those people do not necessarily feel particularly well defended by those who are supposed to be in charge of their flocks.

Lord Selsdon: Occasionally Governments do something that I regard as pointless—I do not mean that it has no point; I mean that it has less point than anything that I can think of—or useless, by which I mean that it is perhaps of some use but I cannot think what the use is. I will speak from a different point of view. The signal that is sent by doing this causes me concern. I refer to my experience of the more difficult things in life, when I was sent on useless and pointless missions after a mistake had been made that was regarded as blasphemous.

I had the unfortunate job, as chairman of the Middle East trade committee, of dealing with “Death of a Princess”, where the true story never came out. At the same time as the play “Anyone for Denis?”, I had to deal with another play in London; I took the Saudi ambassador to see a dress rehearsal of “Goose-Pimples”, which caused a few problems. Another time when things were difficult, I had to go to Libya on my own—as ever, when no visas were being granted. As a hereditary Peer in your Lordships’ House, I was seen as a perfectly justifiable casualty, who should have been put down. It was useful to be able to go there and to say that I was sent because I was worthless.

The final thing was when a particular man wrote a book called The Satanic Versus and I was the only one allowed to go to Tehran, where I sat with great names and prelates. I learnt that the monotheists or the people of the book, as they are called, who believe in one God, were pretty considerable—roughly half the world’s population. I would be there as the Jesus man; there would also be a Moses man and a Muhammad man. We would sit and debate. It is difficult when you have bowlegs to sit cross-legged in the dark smoking hookah pipes with a few people and trying to have a discussion when you are not briefed. In the holy city of Isfahan I was given a team of a couple of lawyers and a couple of mullahs and we had a debate about blasphemy.

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There is a big difference between a spiritual and a temporal fatwa—I had the feeling that the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, was about to issue a temporal fatwa. For example, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa that said that you could not play chess because it was too secular and you were defending the king. The prelates pointed out that the king was the weakest person on the board and even the queen was more powerful. The king hid behind his castles, knights or bishops. Even the peasants could move two steps forward and attack the king. Another fatwa was that you could not eat caviar anymore because it was not halal. Cousteau, who became a Muslim, worked out that the sturgeon’s backbone was stronger, so suddenly the British embassy, which was flooded with cheap caviar, found that it could eat it again. When you issue a spiritual fatwa, however, which cannot be revoked except by a higher authority, you come to great ground.

In all these areas—and there are other incidents to which I could draw attention—you will find that people get worried and anxious for the wrong reasons. They then turn to blasphemy. I have heard people arguing that the law of blasphemy in this country effectively protects God. We can help when people insult prophets and things of that sort, but it is the same thing. The symbolism of removing this causes me concern. I am not saying that war and religions or beliefs are related or that trade and religions or beliefs are related. People’s desire for their own beliefs is critical and to try to interpret other people’s beliefs is worrying. Has the Minister consulted the other monotheists—those who believe in one God—and the other religions? What is their attitude? Their attitude before was that we should perhaps amend the law on blasphemy to make it applicable to other faiths. This is a very doubtful area in which to tread without having consulted over a wider range than just within Parliament.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: I hope that your Lordships will accept a fourth voice from these Benches, but it will be a voice expressing support for the noble Baroness—in the Division Lobby, too, in due course. The words “rock” and “hard place” swim around in my mind as I try to wrestle with these very difficult issues.

I came into the debate not knowing which way I would vote. The reason for my conclusions and why I have been persuaded is partly that, as the feelings that have been expressed suggest, this is a complex subject and one, therefore, that it is not appropriate to introduce into this Bill at a late stage. It is not appropriate to have consultation with the Church of England through the Archbishops, who may have spoken to one or two other church leaders. It raises much more profound issues with other faith communities, as the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, just mentioned.

Associated with that, I think that there should be a free vote. This is a serious matter; it is a matter of conscience. There has been the decline in the provision of free votes on matters of morality and conscience in Parliament in recent years. We have seen

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that recently with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The original Act went through in 1990 on a free vote, as I understand it. However, the recent Bill was whipped through, time and again, with the majority of people who voted not having heard a word of the argument. If we vote now, as we probably will, we know that the Government will win because the vote will be whipped through, probably with the support of the Liberal Democrats. I say to the Liberal Democrats—perhaps they are not having a whipped vote, but the vote is certainly whipped on the government side—that this is surely a matter of conscience and therefore should not be treated in this way.

The Earl of Onslow: May I, who proposed much the same amendment, support the right reverend Prelate and beg the Government to have a free vote? This is nothing to do with government policy, even though I support and will vote for the Minister.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: I shall refer to my close friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and say that I think that the position that I am advocating is true liberalism. The way in which things are being forced through your Lordships’ House on these sorts of issues is wrong. I think that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham was arguing more for a replacement of the law than for its abolition; he was arguing for this to be looked at in the round.

We have recently enacted the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. The most reverend Primate said that we were in uncharted waters and my noble friend and kinsman—I am married to his sister—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said that the law was adequate. However, it is untested and I have a feeling that it will be just as useless as the blasphemy laws. It is qualified by a provision whereby it shall not,

With that on the statute book, the recent law might well turn out to be absolutely as hopeless as some people think the blasphemy law is. There is a real sense of uncharted waters and untested law. I suspect that the recent law is utterly useless. We certainly do not know that it is not utterly useless, so I find the timing of this provision unhelpful.

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