HL Deb 20 February 1990 vol 516 cc139-42

2.48 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of the letter in the Independent of Wednesday 7th February signed by the president, chairman and members of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, what action they are taking to deter continuing threats to the life of Salman Rushdie.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, we deplore Iran's continuing incitements to murder a British citizen and Iran must lift the threat to the life of Salman Rushdie. Mr. Rushdie continues to receive the police protection he has had since the threat to his life was first made in February 1989.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that reply. Is he aware that the Government are to be congratulated for preserving Mr. Rushdie's life so far? However, perhaps he can give us further information on the matter. The Question tabled yesterday was concerned with the past, but this one is concerned with the future. Can he tell us how long this situation will continue? Further, have the Government any plans to bring it to an end?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords; it will be continued so long as it is considered necessary by the police, having regard to all the circumstances involved.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, can the noble Viscount tell the House whether there have been any arrests by the police of those people who march on our streets calling for the murder of Mr. Rushdie? Is that not a criminal offence?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, if the noble Lord refers to a demonstration that took place on Saturday, I can inform your Lordships that according to the police about 200 people attended an assembly organised by the Young Moslem League to protest against The Satanic Verses. The demonstration was generally orderly. When the youths tried to burn an effigy of Mr. Rushdie, the police took it away from them. About 20 police officers were deployed and only two arrests were made, for public order offences.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell us when it will be possible to conduct Question Time without mention of this author on the Order Paper?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I cannot help my noble friend. It is up to me to answer the Question.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, do the Government realise that the kind of question which has just been asked is undesirable? Is the noble Viscount aware that this is a clear case of international terrorism by Iran? As long as some of us are Members of this House, we shall raise the issue of threats made to the life of a British subject.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that this is quite despicable. In my original Answer I said that we deplored the stance that Iran has taken and we look very firmly to Iran to change its mind.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, as the Moslem community itself seems to be divided on the issue of the death threat to Salman Rushdie, is it appropriate at this stage for Her Majesty's Government to arrange a meeting with selected leaders of the Moslem community? They would do so with a view to obtaining a clear and unequivocal statement from that community to its followers that they should observe the laws of this country while they remain in Britain.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, it would be quite wrong to castigate the British Moslem community on the basis of the actions of an extremist few. Many Moslems are British citizens; many have been born in Britain. We value the contribution which they have made to this country.

As for the point made by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, the Government consider that remarks made by Dr. Siddiqui at a meeting in East London on 18th February appear to advocate the upholding of British law. I shall of course bear in mind the further remarks made by the noble Lord to see whether anything else can be done.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, would a way out of this miserable dilemma be for the Government to consider amending the law of blasphemy so that it covered insults to the Moslem religion? Then the Moslem community would have some other recourse—a non violent recourse—to satisfy their outraged feelings.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I understand that there is to be a judicial review later this month. Obviously we shall wish to consider the outcome. A minority of the Law Commission recommended extending the scope of the blasphemy laws in 1985. Apart from obvious difficulties in deciding where to draw the line between religions deserving protection and extremist cults, to change the law in this way might encourage a flurry of prosecutions which would be damaging to relations between members of different faiths.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, would it not be far better if the ancient and obsolete laws of blasphemy were removed altogether? Every religion should be allowed to take criticism like every other organisation. If it is strong enough to exist as a religion then it has nothing whatever to worry about.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I feel that that matter is outside the scope of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that here it is important to lower the temperature and not to give any opportunity to martyrs in the matter? Surely one way is to treat this fatuous fatwa with the ridicule it deserves. Does the noble Viscount also agree that people sometimes get steamed up and make statements which appear to be violent but which, in practice, are not? For instance, did not the highly distinguished father of the noble Earl, Lord Russell once sit down in Trafalgar Square? Although no doubt he was hoping to be arrested, the police wisely did not arrest him.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I think that we should pay some regard to the remarks made by the noble Lord. For my part, I hope that these demonstrations will soon cease. However, I fear that there is a requirement that Iran should play a part in this matter.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is not part of the truth about the matter that there ought to be brought home to Moslems who support this fatwa the immense amount of harm they have done to Islam throughout the civilised world? They have not only made an unreadable book a bestseller, but they have also brought contempt upon one of the three great world religions which derives from the life of Abraham.

Viscount Ullswater

Yes, my Lords, I agree with the remarks of my noble and learned friend. I should be surprised if those who are demonstrating have actually read the book.

Lord Monson

My Lords, if a group of non-Moslems were to make precisely the same threats against an individual of whom they disapproved, couched in identical terms to the threats directed against Salman Rushdie, would they too escape prosecution?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, it is entirely up to the police and the prosecuting authorities to take action if the evidence justifies it, as my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said yesterday.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, indeed, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said yesterday, this is a matter where the Director of Public Prosecutions has considered all the evidence and, to date, has decided that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute for incitement to murder. I wonder whether the noble Viscount could find some way of communicating to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—it should not be too difficult at this moment—the report in the Guardian of yesterday? It stated that at the meeting held on Sunday night addressed by Dr. Siddiqui, he ridiculed the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions, not to prosecute him for incitement to murder on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence as an example of the 'dishonesty and duplicity' of the establishment". Has not a limit been reached when either our law must show itself capable of dealing with such matters or it will be brought into ridicule?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, are serious. I shall certainly bring them to the attention of my noble and learned friend in order that they can be examined once more.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for these answers. Will he take note of what has been said on all sides of the House on this matter, and see whether the Government can devise some means of improving the situation created by this difficult problem?

Viscount Ullswater

Yes, my Lords.