HC Deb 07 March 1990 vol 168 cc886-8 4.19 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish the offence of blasphemy and certain other common law offences; and for connected purposes. Disagreement about religion has a long and extremely dismal history. Michelangelo's religious art in the Sistine chapel, when he painted frescoes for one pope, was painted out after his death on the orders of another incumbent in that office. In the 15th century, Joan of Arc was burnt at Rouen. John Huss was burned as a heretic in Bohemia —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members who are not remaining in the Chamber, especially those who are now standing below the Gangway, should leave quietly.

Mr. Cryer

In the 16th century, much of Europe was consumed by Catholics and Protestants killing one another in the name of righteousness. Protestants killed other Protestants and both Protestants and Catholics killed more extreme dissenters such as Anabaptists.

Galileo was imprisoned in 1633 and forced to repent his view that the world was round. Spinoza, one of the great philosophers, was expelled from the Jewish congregation and condemned by both Catholics and Protestants. In 1697, the Blasphemy Act was passed and men and women suffered under it until the 1960s.

George Holyoake was imprisoned for six months at Cheltenham for blasphemy in the 1830s, for preferring concern for the economic well-being of humanity to duty to God. After serving his six months, Holyoake went on to found the London Secular Society and to campaign about the case of Thomas Pooley in 1857. Pooley, who was mentally disturbed, had written "Jesus Christ" and "T. Pooley" on a clergyman's gate. Mr. Justice Coleridge allowed the conviction on the ground that the words must be insulting in some way. Charles Bradlaugh was denied his seat in this place on several occasions because of his lack of religious views.

As recently as 1911, John W. Gott of Bradford was sentenced to four months' imprisonment for publishing satirical verses in his "Rib-Tickler" or "Questions for Parsons". Gott continued an increasingly bitter campaign to repeal the laws that were used to curb the public views of free thinkers.

In 1922, at the Old Bailey, Gott was sentenced to nine months' hard labour for blasphemy. Despite medical evidence that he was seriously ill, he was forced to serve the full sentence. He died shortly after his release in 1922. Another death on the scaffold of intolerance.

Gott's tradition was taken up in Bradford by a well-known orator, Joe Corina. As society became more tolerant, it was possible on a Sunday evening on Broadway in Bradford to hear the secularists speaking yards away from an advocate of the Catholic Truth Society. I knew and admired both speakers. That spirit of tolerance and exchange of ideas must be preserved, and my Bill will help to do that.

Following the recommendation of the Law Commission in 1966 that the statute of 1697 should be repealed, the Criminal Law Act 1967 implemented the recommendation. There remains, however, the common law criminal offence. That offence is one of strict liability, in that it requires no evidence of intention to blaspheme. It provides only that the language should be shocking and insulting. Hence, evidence is not allowed about the defendant's belief and purpose, contrary to the general principles of our law. For example, a deeply religious person cannot bring evidence to the court of his religious conviction.

The Law Commission in 1985 recommended unanimously that the common law offence should be repealed. Two out of seven said that a new offence should be created. All seven agreed that the law of blasphemy should be repealed. Since that report, the Public Order Act 1986 created a new offence. Under section 5(1), a person will be guilty if he (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby. So that dealt with the gap that a minority on the Law Commission suggested should be plugged and will surely cover any serious circumstance where disputes occur in the ordinary course of events.

My Bill follows precisely the draft Bill provided by the Law Commission in its 1985 report. It consists of three clauses. Clause 1 would abolish the offences in common law whose abolition was recommended in the report. Clause 1(a) would abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. Clause 1(b) and (c) would abolish the offences of disturbing divine worship or devotions, and striking a person in a church or churchyard. The clause refers to distinct offences, since there is some doubt, on the authorities, as to whether they exist. The most recent reported case dates from the mid-18th century. Of course, the Public Order Act 1986 created a new offence to cover any gap that might arise.

Clause 2 would repeal references to the common law offence of blasphemous libel in the Criminal Libel Act 1819 and to blasphemous matters in section 3 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888, which confers privilege on newspaper reports of court proceedings, provided the matter is not blasphemous or indecent.

Clause 3 provides for the short title and extent of the Bill. No commencement date is specified, which means that, if and when the Bill was enacted, it would come into force on receiving Royal Assent.

I hope that the Bill is approved. It would end uncertainty and unfairness, and place all faiths on an equal basis. It would emphasise tolerance in society. I do not accept that any faith should impose its views on the rest of society. A faith can, and indeed does, persuade and urge followers not to see a film or read a book, but, for example, groups within the Muslim faith cannot impose censorship on the rest of the nation through the withdrawal of "Satanic Verses". People have a right to read a book, in paperback or hardback form, provided it has been produced within the law.

Our general tolerance is seriously scarred by the fact that Salman Rushdie cannot argue his views in a spirit of tolerance. Death threats to him are intolerable. The placing of all faiths on an equal basis would be a demonstration of our determination that the mutual exchange and discussion of various ideas should take place free from imposition and threats.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bob Cryer. Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Norman Buchan, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Bill Michie, Mr. Eddie Loyden, Mr. Brian Sedgemore, Mr. Clive Soley, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. Martin Flannery and Mr. Eric S. Heller.