HL Deb 10 October 1988 vol 500 cc585-90

3.4 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to introduce legislation to strengthen and make effective the law in respect of blasphemy.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the Government have no plans at present for altering the law relating to blasphemy.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the deep concern felt by many people at the announcement by the Attorney General that the present law on blasphemy is not strong enough to apply to the publication and use of a film made by an American film producer who is seeking to make money by publishing immensely offensive observations about the founder of the Christian faith?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is perfectly true that there is concern. The position is that the Law Commission considered this matter and came to various conclusions which were not unanimous. We do not believe that there is a sufficient consensus of opinion to justify a change in the law. However, a number of people who are committed to the point of view which my noble friend takes have nevertheless considered that the film is a serious one. Many of those people felt that it was not blasphemous.

Lord Renton

My Lords, leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the film, does my noble friend acknowledge that we are primarily a Christian country with separately established Churches in different parts of the kingdom, and that the Queen is Defender of the Faith? Will he give an assurance that in this matter the Government will rise to the occasion and themselves be defenders of the faith?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the position is that one is concerned, as everyone is concerned, about the defence of the faith. However, there is also the consideration of the right of free speech and the curtailment of that right. When the Government come to suggest alterations for Parliament to consider, they have to take into account whether or not the right of free speech would be curtailed. Although many people take the view of my noble friend—and I have very much sympathy with it—it does not mean that those who made the film did not endeavour to portray something which they considered to be a serious matter. It is up to individuals to make up their own mind as to whether or not what was put in the film is offensive. That is an individual choice. It is not something upon which the Government themselves ought to make a prognosis.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, perhaps I may interject just one single word.

Noble Lords

Order! Question!

Lord Harvington

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Earl whether he would agree with me that this is looked upon by countless numbers of our countrymen as a very serious blasphemy indeed and whether it is not up to us, as leaders of Christianity—which is what I believe a great many Members of this House to be—to do something about it. If we cannot do anything about it under the present legislation, ought we not to do something about it through new legislation? Will he further agree that this is a suitable matter to be brought up for debate within a very short time in order to make sure that Parliament takes seriously the fact that this country is still a Christian nation?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, to answer that question, of course my noble friend is entitled to table any subject for debate. This may well be a suitable subject. I do not know; it is up to noble Lords to decide whether or not there should be a debate upon the matter. However, the serious content of my noble friend's Question relates to the delicate balance that has to be drawn between the right to freedom of expression and the need to protect from vilification the fundamental tenets of the Christian religion. I have not seen the film but I understand that even some of its critics have acknowledged that "The Last Temptation of Christ" is a serious film which raises serious theological issues. That is not my own view because I have not seen the film; that is merely what some people say about it. There is a measure of agreement among both legal and ecclesiastical opinion that the film is not blasphemous.

The Lord Bishop of St. Albans

My Lords, while not wishing to discuss the merits of the particular film, which in the course of my duties I had the tedious responsibility of watching through all its two hours and 40 minutes, will the Minister give some indication to the House as to the attitude of Her Majesty's Government to the report on blasphemy produced by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury through the working party of which I have the honour to be a member? We should be very interested to know whether Her Majesty's Government respond positively to these suggestions.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St. Albans for the trouble he took in seeing this film and in putting forward the report of the working group of the Archbishop.

It is right to point out first that the report of the Law Commission did not reflect a unanimous view. Three members were in favour of abolishing the law of blasphemy; two were in favour of abolishing it but replacing it with something else. The Archbishop's working group—of which the right reverend Prelate was a member—decided to go along with the minority view of the Law Commission that the offence of blasphemy should be replaced with something else and that that should refer not only to the Christian religion but also to other religions. We are very grateful, but I am bound to tell the right reverend Prelate that there are difficulties with the definition of religion, and the absence of consensus among religious groups as to what should be done. For instance, one group, the Western Buddhist Order, indicated that it would not wish to be protected in this way. There are therefore difficulties, as the right reverend Prelate can probably see.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that historical experience almost everywhere tells us that once one starts strengthening the law against opinions, one starts strengthening the law against the people who hold those opinions and from there the step to burning heretics is not far? Is he also aware that our laws against blasphemy are a parcel of obsolescent nonsense which requires junking and that the sooner those laws are junked the better?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I thought for once that I was going to be able to go along with the noble Lord, Lord Paget, in what he was saying; that is, that the laws of blasphemy are very delicate; and on the right of freedom of speech, which the alteration of the law of blasphemy might curtail.

However, when the noble Lord says that they are a lot of old junk to be discarded, I do not agree, with the greatest of respect. Ten years ago there was an occasion when the noble Lord, Lord Willis, produced a Bill to abolish the law of blasphemy. I looked that up and found, much to my surprise, that I had participated in that debate. I had occasion to say: If one goes and stands outside Westminster Cathedral and shouts, 'To hell with the Pope' or, as Mr. Paisley did, calls him 'Old Mr. Red-Socks', people will not stick it and in the end one will receive a punch on the nose and cause a breach of the peace".—[Official Report,23/2/78; col. 295.] That essential drift still remains. If one has no law of blasphemy one invites civil commotion.

Lord Soper

My Lords, in declaring an interest—which has tended to wane somewhat during the last five minutes—may I ask the Government whether they will distinguish in any deliberations on this matter between the establishment of a religion in a country like ours and the experience of Christianity, which are two very different things?

I ask the Minister whether he agrees with me that to call this a Christian country is an overstatement. If he had been in Hyde Park yesterday afternoon, as I was, I think he would have been reinforced in that conviction. I believe that the essence of blasphemy can only be justified in terms of a breach of the peace. Otherwise we shall do far better to establish some federation of controversy rather than the establishment of some doctrine that it is improper and illegal to cast doubts on the general propositions of the Christian faith.

In that regard I think that freedom of discussion, and a fellowship of controversy which does not prescribe these draconic conditions of blasphemy which have existed, is a far better way of contributing to the welfare not only of the Christian faith but of the civilised community in general.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Soper, asks a very deep and philosophical question to which I find it a trifle difficult to give a concise reply. However, of course there is a difference between the established Church or established Christianity and the experience of Christianity. The second ought to emulate the first. But he is quite right when he considers that there is a difficulty over the law of blasphemy and where the curtailment should come in.

In its judicial capacity your Lordships' House has held that the common law offence of blasphemous libel is committed in publishing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible or some sacred subject material which is scurrilous, abusive or offensive and which tends to vilify the Christian religion. But the decisions of the courts have always emphasised the strongly offensive character—and that is the important part—of the material. That must exist for publication to be criminal.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether devil worship is on the increase?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not have the slightest idea whether that is blasphemous. I do not think it is. If the noble Baroness wishes to ask me a question on devil worship, I shall be happy to discover the answer, but I am not equipped to give it to her now.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, does not this discussion show the wisdom of following the advice of Lord Melbourne, "Why can't you let the matter alone?"?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am deeply grateful for that excellent piece of advice from my noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley. I should be happy if your Lordships would agree to leave the matter alone.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is there not a certain danger that prosecutions for the crime of blasphemy could well stimulate further activities that the law was designed to protect?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there is always in some the desire to go as close to the wind as one possibly can so as to see how far one can go. One of the dangers of any kind of prosecution is that that could happen. There are always those who want to see if they can succeed in breaking the law; and if they do not then everyone wishes to see why they have not broken it. That is the danger of this particular case.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that the film, to which reference has been made in several supplementary questions, is not an exercise in free speech but a deliberate attempt to raise money by publishing offensive observations about the founder of the Christian religion with the knowledge that they would be offensive and with no other motive than making money? Is he aware that many people feel that the law of blasphemy, which he has defended, is a pretty ineffective instrument if it cannot stop this?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter gives your Lordships the benefit of his views, which I greatly respect. Had I seen the film, which I have not, I might have come to the same view. All I can tell your Lordships is that the British Board of Film Classification considered the matter in great detail, sought a wide range of views, and invited the senior representatives of the Christian Church to see the film. The president of the board, the noble Earl, Lord Harewood, and the vice-president saw it. The board took legal advice. The board's view was that the film was not blasphemous.

My noble friend wishes to alter the law on blasphemy. He will have observed from the discussions which your Lordships have had that that is a fairly controversial area. Even the Law Commission was not satisfied that there was unanimity of view. I think that we should proceed fairly cautiously.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, before we leave this Question, will the Government consider that if film companies, out to make huge profits, are allowed to put out films which give enormous offence concerning the heads of other religions, they could cause an immense amount of public trouble, particularly as regards the mixed communities which we now have in this country? Are the Government aware that that might also enormously damage our relations in the Middle East? Would it not be desirable for the Government to consider this Question again to make sure that things are not done which give prodigious offence on these religious matters?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Government cannot decide what should be written, published or shown in a cinema. All the Government can do is to suggest to Parliament an alteration in the law. I have tried to explain to your Lordships, for reasons which the House will understand, that to alter the law at the moment might run us into more trouble than leaving it where it is. That does not mean to say that I do not have a great deal of sympathy with the views which have been expressed. The problem is difficult; the law exists and it is possible for prosecutions to occur in certain cases. It so happens that in this particular matter a prosecution looked likely to fail.