When I said we should not criticise Islam, I did not mean, of course, that there should never be any critical statements about it – or, indeed, any other religion. All religions should be able to weather considered critical commentary. What I was driving at were the kind of scurrilous or abusive attacks on the things held sacred by any religion, such as the portrayal of Jesus as a sexual pervert in the infamous Jerry Springer opera.
The failed prosecution of the BBC for blasphemy over this by Christian Voice was referred to many times in a wide-ranging debate, to which several Cornerstone members contributed.
It is quite clear that my colleague Richard Bacon was right to see this latest move by the Government as yet another step in their secularisation agenda.
Below is the Hansard account of my interventions.
Debate on Government amendment to Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill
6 May 2008 : Column 638
Maria Eagle: These amendments abolish the common law criminal offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. Following my announcement on Report on 9 January, and after a short period of consultation, the Government tabled these amendments at the Committee stage in the other place. These offences have now largely fallen into disuse and therefore run the risk of bringing the law into disrepute. The issue of what to do about them has been around for many years and has attracted considerable debate. As long ago as 1985, the Law Commission recommended that they be abolished.
The Lords Select Committee Report on religious offences, published in 2003, devotes a whole chapter to the issue. As I said on Report, it is high time that Parliament reached a settled conclusion on the matter. Today gives us an opportunity to do so. The last prosecution under these laws was in 1977, in the case of Whitehouse v. Gay News Ltd, and there has been no public prosecution under them since the 1920s. There have therefore been no cases since the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1998. Given that these laws protect only the tenets of the Christian Churches, they would appear to be plainly discriminatory. I do not believe that abolishing the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel is anything to do with political correctness.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): If this law is not being used, one might wonder whether it is doing any harm. One might make the point that its abolition could appear to be an erosion of the position of the established Church. There is a mismatch: people indulge
in self-censorship of any criticism of the Mohammedan religion-rightly, because we should not criticise it-but they feel free to pour abuse and vitriol on, and make comedies about, Christianity. Getting rid of the blasphemy law sends a message that that is okay, but it is insulting to many Christians.
Maria Eagle: I do not believe that to be the case, and I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s analysis.
In its report on this Bill in January, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said:
“the continued existence of the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel can no longer be justified, and we are confident that this would also, in today’s conditions, be the view of the English courts under the Human Rights Act and the Strasbourg Court under the ECHR”.
The High Court’s decision on 5 December last year that the Theatres Act 1968 and the Broadcasting Act 1990 prevent the prosecution of a theatre, the BBC or another broadcaster for blasphemous libel would appear to have given further weight to the notion that the offences are, to all intents and purposes, moribund. That was the result of a case brought by the organisation Christian Voice in response to the broadcast of the play “Jerry Springer: The Opera”…
David Howarth: As a Liberal, it seems to me to be objectionable, as well as sad, that people should look to the state for their sense of identity. They should not look to the Government or the law for their own sense of worth. They should look to themselves, their families and their other social relations. It is a deeply sinister idea that the state should help to create people’s identity. I realise that the Government frequently get close to that view in their debates about Britishness. That is a dangerous route to go down.
Mr. Leigh: So the hon. Gentleman believes that the state has no right to impose Acts of Parliament dealing with matters such as incitement to religious or racial hatred. He seems to be suggesting an ultra-Liberal point of view that the state has no role in that respect. Is that right?
David Howarth: Not at all. The state’s role is to prevent harm, but it must do so in a way that does not show favouritism to particular religious views….
Mr. Leigh: In response to what the Minister said earlier, if Bagehot were here, he would argue that we should not keep something just because it is entirely rational. There is something symbolic about the law in question. It is to do with our culture and tradition, so it has value in that sense …
Mr. Leigh: Is it not somewhat bizarre that pretty much everyone who has spoken in defence of the Church of England so far has been a Catholic? [Interruption.] Apart from one practising Jew.
Dr. Julian Lewis: Non-practising.
Mr. Leigh: Does not that say something about the competence of the established Church? …
Mr. Bacon: The Minister said that the law would be used only in the most compelling circumstances, but did “Jerry Springer: The Opera” represent the most compelling circumstances? I have lost count of the number of times that I have sat in Committee and heard Ministers say that they will have a piece of legislation “just in case”.
Mr. Leigh: Ministers use that argument many times. There are tens of thousands of lines of legislation and laws that are never used, so why have the Government focused, laser-like, on this particular law?
Mr. Bacon: They have done so because it is part of their secularisation agenda.