HL Deb 05 March 1990 vol 516 cc1018-42

5.57 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a further statement on the reasons for the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute those who have threatened the life of Mr. Salman Rushdie.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am raising tonight the question of the threats directed at the life of Mr. Salman Rushdie, a British subject resident in the United Kingdom, and the rather surprising decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute those who within the jurisdiction of the British courts have called for him to be murdered.

The House will recall that this matter was initially raised on 19th February when a number of noble Lords joined me in expressing puzzlement at the director's decision. On 20th February it was raised again by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, when disquiet was again expressed by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. I think it would be right to remind the House of the sequence of events in this case. On 26th September 1988 Penguin Viking published The Satanic Verses in London. Within weeks the book had been banned in many Moslem countries and in some countries where there were significant Moslem minorities. On 8th November 1988 The Satanic Verses won the Whitbread Prize for novels. Nine weeks later a group of Moslems in Bradford ritually burned a copy of the book. Then, on 14th February last year, the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his sentence of death on Mr. Rushdie. He said this: I inform the proud Moslem people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses book which is against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Moslems to execute them wherever they find them".

Within 24 hours Mr. Rushdie was removed to a safe house. Since then he has been under the protection of armed officers of the Metropolitan Police. On the same day as the Ayatollah's statement in Teheran, the first direct threat on the life of Mr. Rushdie was made in Britain. Sayed Abdul Quddus, the then secretary of the Bradford Council of Mosques, said that Mr. Rushdie had "tortured Islam" and deserved to pay the penalty by "hanging". He added: Muslims here would kill him and I would willingly sacrifice my own life and that of my children to carry out the Ayatollah's wishes should the opportunity arise. And if this man thinks bodyguards will be able to protect him, he is living in a fool's paradise".

That statement was reported in a number of newspapers, including The Times of 15th February last year. It was also mentioned on television and on the radio. On the same day, the vice-chairman of the Islamic Mission in Rochdale said that retribution was justified not only against the author but also against everyone involved in the publication of the book. Again, that statement was widely reported.

Since that time we have had repeated statements from a minority of Moslem leaders—and it is right to emphasise that it is a minority of Moslem leaders—in the United Kingdom calling for Mr. Rushdie's execution, not least by Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, the director of the Moslem Institute whose words have also been widely reported in the press, on television and on the radio. On the basis of that I wrote to the Attorney-General asking what action the director intended to take on yet another case of a threat on the life of Mr. Rushdie.

Since that time we have witnessed crowds carrying banners in public demonstrations which carry the words, "Kill Rushdie". Moreover, we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, on 19th February of a newspaper report which stated that, … youngsters at the meeting—some under 10-years-old—gave their support to the death sentence". [Official Report, 19.2.90; col. 10.]

In the light of that clear evidence—that is, clear unambiguous evidence—of repeated threats to the life of Mr. Rushdie, what has been the response of the Director of Public Prosecutions? On 19th February (at col. 9 of Hansard) the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor told us that the director had, concluded in the light of all the evidence available to him … that it was not appropriate to institute criminal proceedings".

The noble and learned Lord later said: The director regards as a matter of extreme gravity any conduct on the part of any person within this jurisdiction which amounts to the offence of incitement to murder".

It would be truly remarkable if the director did not regard incitement to murder as a matter of extreme gravity. However, what puzzles many of us is why, despite the advice which we are told he has received from leading counsel, not a single prosecution has been brought against those in this country who have called for the murder of a British subject.

The offence of incitement to murder is, fortunately, relatively unusual in this country. I do not propose, for reasons to which I shall refer in a moment, to deal at any length with the law so far as concerns this offence. However, I should like to mention one authority to which my attention was drawn by my noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington. I refer to the case of Regina v. Most in 1881 7QBD 244 reported in the 12th edition of Russell on Crime. It says: The alleged encouragement and endeavour to persuade to murder was the publication and circulation by him"—

that is, Mr. Most— of an article written in German in a newspaper published in London exalting in the recent murder of the Emperor of Russia and commending it as an example. The jury were directed that if they thought he intended to, and did, encourage any person to murder any other person, whether a subject of Her Majesty or not, and whether within her dominions or not, and that such encouragement was the natural effect of the article, they should find him guilty. It was held that such direction was correct, although the encouragement was not addressed to any person in particular".

Those who have directed their threats against Mr. Rushdie have not done so in the German language; their threats have been unambiguous and no one can have any doubt whatever as to what they intended. But, as I indicated a moment ago, the Government have not suggested for a moment that the director's decision is based upon any inadequacies in the present law on incitement to murder. When I put that precise point to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor on 19th February (at col. 11 of Hansard) he said: The law in relation to incitement to murder is the law set out in Section 4 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. I know of no proposal to change that section".

Therefore, the position is this: the Government are satisfied with the present state of criminal law. That being so, I think that we should ask ourselves a rather different question.

Let us assume a situation where other groups in our society were calling for the murder of other citizens. Let us suppose that we had large public meetings at which calls were made for the murder of people who were prominent in the public life of this country; for example, a prime minister, a High Court judge, a bishop, or a chief Rabbi. As a result of those threats such persons were advised by the police that the threats were of such a grave character that they should not fulfil any public engagements. That is precisely the advice given by the police to Mr. Rushdie on a recent occasion. Let us say that some of them—and I do not give Ministers as an example because they have a high level of personal protection—were told that they had to live at a secret address and be protected by armed police.

Further, let us assume that calls for the death of those people were accompanied by banner-waving crowds calling for their murder and that 10 year-olds were being encouraged to support those demands. Finally, let us assume that the Director of Public Prosecutions came to exactly the same decision as he did in the case of Mr. Rushdie; namely, that he would not prosecute. I think that we all know perfectly well what would happen in such a situation. There would be public uproar. There would certainly be demands that, because of presumed inadequacies in the law, the Government should be introducing legislation at once to strengthen the existing law. However, that is on the assumption that the present law is inadequate. I do not believe that it is and I know of no one in this House who believes that the present law is inadequate. We have here an altogether different situation—an entirely satisfactory law but an inexplicable decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions not to use it.

I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, who will reply to the debate that I believe that the answers given by his colleague the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor on 19th February convinced remarkably few people in this Chamber. At the end of it all we wondered precisely what the director was prepared to do concerning the continuing threats to the life of Mr. Rushdie. Will there simply be more sad shaking of the head and a repetition of the statement that there is unfortunately not enough evidence to justify a prosecution; or does the director intend to obtain that evidence?

Perhaps I may give an example. Some years ago we were confronted in this country with the activities of a group of extremists calling themselves the Animal Liberation Front. They operated in the areas of different police forces and it was judged necessary to create a single desk which would co-ordinate the information and intelligence concerning their activities. As a result of that action a number of these people were arrested and brought before the courts.

My question to the noble Lord is this: is the director asking the special branches of the police forces concerned—and as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will know from his experience in the Home Office such branches exist in every police force in the country—to take co-ordinated action to secure evidence if there is an inadequacy regarding evidence on the matter?

I hope that the noble Lord will not rely on the argument that this is a matter for each chief officer who is operationally independent. We all know perfectly well that those officers are operationally independent. I am asking a different question: whether the director himself, on his own initiative, is endeavouring to ensure that he obtains adequate evidence to allow him to bring criminal proceedings against people who are constantly making these threats.

I shall only say in conclusion that I believe that the disinclination of the director to bring such proceedings is beginning to cause significant public disquiet. This gives rise to the belief—however unjust that belief may be—that if other British citizens behaved as a minority of Moslem extremists have behaved, they would be prosecuted. Nothing could do more damage to community relations in our country than for such a belief to persist, however unwarranted it may be. Good community relations can only be established if there is an overwhelming belief that there is in this country full equality before the law for all our citizens; laws which we all have to obey, whatever our religion may be, whether we were born in this country or are immigrants to it. We cannot allow anyone to believe the contrary. It is plainly unacceptable.

Tonight we are discussing the case of a British citizen who is a hunted man in his own country; a man unable to live at his secret address without the presence of armed police officers. He has committed no offence known to our law. All he has done is to exercise his right to free speech in a democracy. I believe that what has happened to Mr. Rushdie is a public outrage. It is time to let those who threaten his life know that they will face the full rigours of our law if they persist. Last March, just after the Ayatollah Khomeini's sentence of death on Mr. Rushdie, the French Prime Minister M. Rocard said: Any further calls for violence or murder will lead to immediate criminal prosecution".

I believe that it is about time that we heard those sentiments expressed in this country.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I think that we should be grateful to the noble Lord for raising this matter. It is appropriate that it should come before your Lordships' House because it concerns the liberty of the subject. It raises important legal and constitutional aspects of our life and I am sure that we are all deeply concerned about it.

What worries me deeply day after clay is what will happen if Rushdie is executed in Britain. Shall we see wildly jubilant demonstrations, glorifying the act of the person who did it? What is to be our reaction to an event of that kind? Are we prepared for it? Have the Government any plans to deal with it? Is it conceivable that, contrary to all the restraints put upon public demonstrations, crowds assemble to cheer the execution and death of this "dreadful man"? It is a deeply worrying possibility.

I take the threat of execution very seriously indeed. I do not know whether people think this is just wild talk, and that they do not mean it, it will not happen. I think that they do mean it and that it can happen. It is a year since this began. When it first happened one was sceptical of some of the statements that were made by opponents of Rushdie that, "This man will never go free again. He will live in constant and perpetual hiding". If he emerges and is seen by a faithful member of the Moslem fraternity he could be shot on sight and the man who did it be glorified among his own people. That is a sombre thought. We cannot have it far from our minds in dealing with the subject.

A case has been heard in the courts during the last two or three days which possibly has some bearing on aspects of the development of our law in this connection. I make no comment on it; I see that the judges have reserved judgment on the action against Penguin books for circulating something which might give rise to a breach of the peace and disorder.

However, I wish to deal particularly with this question: what do the Moslems want? One of the remarks we have heard frequently is that they want to be covered by the blasphemy law. The suggestion is that the law should be extended to cover other religions and that they should then enjoy the same safeguards against offensive statements of a blasphemous nature as the Christian Church in Britain. There is lurking not far away from this position a review of the charity law. Unless we are careful we may become involved in a controversial and complicated debate as regards what constitutes religion. What are the conditions that have to be satisfied by a body for it to be called a religion? That matter certainly arises in connection with charity law because there is a feeling abroad that some cults or quasi-religious sects are covered by the charity law which should not be and they are indulging in practices which are inconsistent with our concept of a religious body and which should somehow or other be removed from the facilities, the protection and the benefits of charity registration. This is a difficult matter.

When charities are mentioned the subject of the Moonies particularly crops up, as does mention of other bodies of that kind. We have heard the subject of the Moonies discussed in your Lordships' House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, on more than one occasion. However, that has a bearing on the extension of the blasphemy law. Should we be specific or should we be general in our description of what we regard as a religion for the purpose of the law in question?

I am bound to say that this matter encompasses some difficult questions. If there is anything approaching a definition of the charity law, it would leave some bodies outside the protection of the blasphemy law. I shall not pursue the matter further, but it is more than a simple question of extending the law of blasphemy to cover other religions. They must either be specified or they must be defined in such terms that the law can state which of them constitute religions. The ultimate purpose of the charity law must be for the advancement of religion. A religion requires the existence of a supernatural force of overriding authority and control. Unless therefore a body has a personal God whose purposes are to be advanced by religious activity, that particular body is not considered to be religious. One can think of a number of estimable bodies in society which would not qualify as religious bodies and yet at the same time have noble purposes and ideals which are every bit as notable and desirable as those of recognised religious bodies.

I have another point to make in connection with blasphemy. An article in The Times of 9th February written by Professor Raymond Plant stated that: Jesus … died convicted of blasphemy, a charge made by a religious élite claiming to speak for the whole of the community which had supposedly been offended by the blasphemy". That is one aspect of the matter which we are bound to think about.

All in all, I do not think there is any easy solution to the problems of the Moslem community and its difficulties with our concept of freedom of speech as regards extending the law of blasphemy to cover the Moslem religion and other religions. I think that as a matter of principle some of us would have to object to the extension of the protection given to religious activities, thought and teaching if that is given without regard to the interests of other bodies of a more secular nature. I happen to be a humanist. I believe that the ideals of a humanist society are every bit as noble and as lofty as those of the Christian religion. What we lack is a belief in a personal God. That absence disqualifies us from being treated as if we were a religious body.

A humanist society has a claim upon the attention and the understanding of the community. There are other bodies too which in their own ways perform an important duty in society in trying to establish a basis for human relationships, human compassion and social responsibility. So what else is left now? I regret to say that I feel that this situation has been played down through fear of upsetting the Moslem community. I do not say that that is reprehensible as I think this situation has to be handled with great care and understanding. However, at the same time, I think it requires firmness. We should be in no doubt at all that there are some things that we cannot stand for. We are a tolerant people. We accept a good deal of behaviour that we disagree with without becoming unduly roused and entering into conflict, but some things will go beyond a point of public endurance. If that happens, it will be a serious matter.

What are the Government doing to try to contain this situation? How can we get this threat removed? As long as the threat exists, a citizen in this country lives in fear of death. He has to remain in hiding at great expense to the community in order to protect him from harm. Are we willing to see that situation go on and on? Is it something that will hang over him and us indefinitely? What will be the end of it? Unless we can see an end to it, it will be extremely difficult to feel settled in our minds about our relationship with an important and growing part of our society.

There are other aspects of the Moslem community which I shall not deal with tonight but which affect our attitude towards other cultures and other people who come to settle here who may press their own desires to have their own way of life, to make their own laws, and to have our laws adjusted to their wishes. This matter requires compromise and tolerance on both sides. But how long will we be tolerant in the face of extremists? That is the point.

This is the time for this House to express itself clearly on the matter. We are free of the pressures of constituencies and we are free of the pressure of lobbies. We are able to look at the matter dispassionately, as wise and experienced members of society can do. I sincerely hope that we shall obtain a better and firmer response which comes closer to the problem from the Government this evening.

6.28 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich has displayed courage and responsibility in putting down this Question for debate. His case, as he made it, seemed to me to be overwhelming. It is no surprise that such a Question should emanate from these Benches. The plight of Mr. Rushdie, as has already been said, raises questions that extend beyond the pages of the Satanic Verses. They are questions which go directly to the maintenance of our democratic way of life.

I have no personal knowledge of the author or of the book. Its merits are not an issue tonight. However, I know that he is a citizen of this country.

He has broken no law of this country. Yet he is currently undergoing a custodial sentence of mind and body of an indeterminate length. He was condemned and sentenced without trial by a júdge who has no jurisdiction within these shores. That sentence is maintained by threats issued by persons here and abroad so serious that the police must provide him with permanent protection.

How can such a situation be tolerated in this country of ours? Today all over the world there are people who look to us in recognition of our long struggle for human rights and civil liberties. We proclaim proudly to such people that here every citizen has the right to live in freedom under the law. We point to Article 5 of the European convention which guarantees the liberty and security of the person. We say, "We shall help you to create a society which will do the same for you".

When those people look at the reality here—as they now can with the communications revolution—they see suppression of freedom of expression. They see the victimisation of one man because he dared to express through the mouth of a character in a book an idea which deeply offends another section of the society in which he lives. How strong, how all-pervasive, remains the written word.

It is but the case of one man, yet the plight of one can epitomise the struggle of millions. We need look no further than South Africa to see that.

Mr. Rushdie's predicament publicly records each day a defeat for the Government, a defeat for the law and a defeat for our way of life. The irony of the situation is that it is freedom of speech, of thought and of expression which are the guarantee of the freedom of religion.

Are we to sit back, wring our hands and concede that we are powerless, impotent to deal with this form of terrorism? Are we yet again to practise the so-called wisdom and restraint of appeasement? Those of us who were young in the 1930s are only too familiar with that alibi. Of course there is a case for letting Mr. Rushdie rot. His accusers can be said to seek martyrdom. A failed prosecution would be worse than no prosecution at all. Behind the scenes we can apply pressure to achieve conciliation and withdrawal of the death threat. It is said that we must do nothing that could make the freeing of hostages more difficult. Surely we know now that weakness ultimately achieves nothing on any front.

When the threats were first issued, as my noble friend has already said, in France and in the United States official reaction was immediate and clear at a high level of government. The Moslem communities in both countries dissociated themselves from the message from Iran. It was not so in this country.

One is bound to ask how much this Government care. Their record on human rights and civil liberties has often been high on rhetoric but consistently low in fact. One could cite the Official Secrets Act, GCHQ, Clause 28, the illegal immigration procedures, the Security Service Bill, the Henry VIII clauses, the Public Order Act, the abolition of challenge, the long trail to the Court of Human Rights. The list goes on.

As we have heard, on 14th February last year the fatwa was issued. Those words, which were read out by my noble friend Lord Harris, seem to be political rather than theological in content. On 1st April Dr. Siddiqui delivered a lecture, to which my noble friend did not refer. Among other things he said: Everywhere Muslim masses have endorsed the Imam's fatwa on Rushdie. The fatwa did not stop at the death sentence. It gave the reason so that no one ever again will dare insult the sanctity of the Muslims. It is the deterrent value of the fatwa that has sent the West into such a frenzy of anger". In October the television showed us all that gentleman calling for the death sentence. He said: The author and his book have got to go". On 23rd October a Mr. Quddus, president of another Islamic group, was reported as saying, I support Dr. Siddiqui with my sincerest heart. According to Islam Rushdie must be punished. I put Islamic law first, British law second". How does the noble Lord the Leader of the House react to that statement? Then there were the marches and the banners—"Kill Rushdie"—and the shouting of all those we saw on our screens.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, as head of the Crown Prosecution Service, acts under the superintendence of the Attorney-General. Only last Thursday we heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, speaking as a former law officer, that when matters of public policy arise—as they do in this case—it is inevitable that the Attorney-General should consult with the Cabinet. Will the Government stand up and be counted in this case?

We are told that there is insufficient evidence and that it is a matter of evidence and not public policy that has prevented prosecution. As my noble friend has already asked, will the Attorney-General advise the DPP to tell Special Branch to go out and monitor meetings and publications and collect the necessary evidence to found successful prosecutions? Incitement is a very broad element in a criminal offence. There is no need to specify a particular person as being the victim or potential victim. There is no need even for such a person to reside in this country. Threatening behaviour to put people in fear is enough under the Public Order Act. Anyone carrying a banner or shouting "Kill Rushdie" in the streets of this country can be brought before the court and, whether convicted or not, can be bound over to keep the peace for a lengthy period of time subject to recall in breach of his undertaking.

The Government acted with alacrity when it was a question of prosecuting pickets during the miners' strike. The Government pursued relentlessly another aspect of the written word, Spycatcher, through the courts at huge expense. The case of Salrnan Rushdie far exceeds Spycatcher in importance for the ordinary citizen. Each day he remains a prisoner is an affront to all of us. Each day the evil of racism and of censorship persists and grows as a direct result.

The Government should surely keep the case permanently before the world. They should seek international agreement to condemn that death threat. They should apply continuing pressure on Q1 the Moslem community here, the vast majority of whose members I am sure are law abiding, to disassociate itself from that threat. I fear that this Administration have neither the guts nor the inclination to do all that. I sincerely hope that the reply of the noble Lord the Leader of the House will prove me wrong.

6.40 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, we are all very much in the debt of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, not just for introducing this subject and for the nobility of his speech, but for giving us the full, factual background. Your Lordships have since heard two other notable speeches. I want to deal with certain constitutional aspects of the matter; but before I do so perhaps I may say that those threats are obviously to be taken seriously. The police take them seriously because they have provided an armed guard for the person who is the object of the threats. There again, we must bear in mind that Islam is a fighting creed. The Jihad (the Holy War) lies at the very heart of it. Every pious Moslem who dies in the course of the Jihad is a martyr who will go straight to paradise. It is in that context that we must judge the reality of the threats.

The other preliminary thing that I wanted to say—as did the noble Lord, Lord Harris—is that it has been emphasised that this was the decision of the DPP alone. The director is of course responsible to the Attorney-General and the Attorney-General is responsible for the director, but it is inconceivable to my mind that on a matter such as this the director should not have consulted the Attorney. There are many matters upon which he does not, and rightly does not; but on a matter of grave public importance such as this he would be gravely culpable unless he consulted the Attorney and, apart from anything else, he would be extremely unfair to the Attorney if he did not do so.

I should like to refer to two matters that arose out of the replies of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor on 19th February. The first is that he emphasised that proceedings were not being brought because of the lack of sufficient evidence. He said that again and again. He was given the opportunity to broaden the matter by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, who asked if that were the sole reason. My noble and learned friend indicated that it was the sole reason. One heard, even in that debate, the testimony of the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and Lord Harris of Greenwich, and we have heard it again today from the latter noble Lord. It seems incontrovertible that there is evidence here. It puts the matter on a completely wrong footing to proceed on the basis that the decision is based solely on lack of evidence.

There are many cases where the director or the attorney can decline to prosecute, or continue a prosecution, if there is ample evidence. He may decide for one of many reasons that a prosecution would do more harm than good. It is strongly arguable in this case that it might well be concluded that a prosecution would do more harm than good. Some of the perpetrators who have been the subject of a complaint seem to be courting martyrdom. Again, I put that in the context of the general Islamic cult of martyrdom in the course of a holy war. They may well conclude that it would do good for them to be prosecuted and to pose as martyrs and if necessary go to prison, thus emphasising their faith and posing further as martyrs. It is that that causes me to doubt a suggestion that fell from the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, which I confess had occurred to me: why are people not brought before the court and bound over to keep the peace? That seems to me to be an obvious first step. Then one might think: what if they refuse to be bound over? They then go to prison or at any rate have to be prosecuted. They pose again as martyrs. That is not necessarily a conclusive argument.

The second matter to which I wish to refer is the basis of my noble and learned friend's reply that he was answering solely for the Attorney in a personal capacity; in other words, not as a member of the Government. He made that clear when he disclaimed any need to consider the fact that the Home Office and the police had considered protection to be necessary. He emphasised that he was speaking solely for the Attorney-General in his personal capacity. In many prosecutions, we leave it to the attorney to decide.

The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, was good enough to quote me from the other night; but I do not believe that I said that the Attorney would consult the Cabinet. What he ought to do, and what he would be culpable in failing to do, would be to consult key members of the Cabinet, especially the Home Secretary and possibly the Prime Minister. However, on that basis the decision is not a Cabinet decision. I was arguing that in some cases it should be a Cabinet decision. I posed the question that was put by Lord Asquith of Bishopstone, then Cyril Asquith, at the time of the Campbell case when the 1924 Labour Government was being greatly criticised for having intervened to secure the withdrawal of a prosecution against the Communist temporary editor of the Daily Worker. Lord Asquith asked whether it was conceivable that the Cabinet in 1914 would not have been entitled to have some say in the prosecution of the Ulster leaders upon which the civil war in Ulster and the whole future of Ulster might depend.

I have never heard that question answered. It seems to me unquestionable that in that case the Cabinet would be entitled to decide on whether a prosecution is to be brought and would be entitled to take into its own hands the decision, making it clear that it is a Cabinet decision and not merely one of the Attorney's. That is quite apart from the collective responsibility of Ministers, which we do not ride too hard and which is quite impossible to reconcile with the idea that the decision is in every case that of the Attorney's and the Attorney's alone without consultation with others.

In this case the relevance is that this seems essentially to be the sort of case which has wide public interest and repercussions and where the Cabinet is under a duty itself to assume the responsibility of whether there shall be a prosecution.

The only other matter with which I want to deal arises out of the admirable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby; namely, about blasphemy. I do not think that it helps to invoke the law of charities. That has been investigated on a number of occasions. The advancement of religion is only one of the heads of charity. On the whole the law has managed fairly well going from case to case. But blasphemy is a much more wide and difficult question. However, it has been investigated by the Law Commission which recommended unanimously that the present law of blasphemy, including the common law—and almost all of it is common law—should be abrogated.

But two members out of the five thought that there should be a statutory substitute, which would be to extend the protection of the blasphemy laws to religions other than Christianity and perhaps Judaism. As I said, that was only a minority, although it did include the chairman of the Law Commission and another very distinguished lawyer.

My own view is that the majority was correct and that all kinds of difficulties, which were examined by the Law Commission, arise if one tries to extend the law of blasphemy to cover other religions. Some were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton—for example, some of the more exotic cults and whether they are to be protected.

Having said that, I end as I started by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for having raised this matter. It is erroneous and misleading to say that this is solely a matter of whether there is evidence of prosecution and that this is essentially a case in which the Cabinet and the Government as a whole should assume responsibility.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for bringing and having the courage to bring this matter on to our agenda tonight. I should like also to congratulate him on the manner in which he introduced this Question and for taking us through the sequence of events which have led to what I consider to be a considerable crisis within this country.

The original death threat was made by an aged ayatollah. It is quite true that he was on the point of death and it may very well be that people might think that his judgment was impaired at that stage and could have forgiven that particular threat. But since then the threat has been renewed, not by ageing ayatollahs but presumably by what is the responsible Government of Iran. So it is a very real and continuing threat that has to be dealt with.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, is absolutely correct when he says that there is a growing impression in this country that there is one law for one section of the community and another for the rest of us. One has only to have a normal conversation in one's sitting room, in a club, a saloon or public bar to know that this is a topic of conversation. It is not something which is under the carpet. It is something which is being actively discussed. That is why the Government should take due heed of the very responsible speeches that have been made tonight and the responsible warnings that have been given to the effect that the Government will fail to deal with this matter at their peril.

There is no doubt in my mind and in the minds of many other people that if another group in our society were to go around calling for the murder of an individual or waving flags which call for the murder of another individual those people would very quickly be brought before the courts and perhaps put in prison as well. I have to say that I am rather amazed at the muted nature of the protests from quarters from which one might have expected an explosion of protest. It is odd that in this country we can have a man imprisoned—because that is what it amounts to—without trial arid because of threat. It is amazing that there has not been an explosion of protest.

One must bear in mind that Mr. Rushdie is just as much a prisoner as was Mr. Mandela, although there are some differences. At least Nelson Mandela was accorded some kind of trial. Mr. Rushdie was condemned to death in absentia, not being heard. He is now condemned apparently to perpetual imprisonment unless the ayatollahs in Iran have second thoughts I know that these are harsh words but they need to be spoken. The fact is that bigots are bigots whatever their colour or creed. We should remember that. It is not only Mr. Rushdie who has been affected. It is not only he who is condemned; it is his family as well. His wife dare not go to see him lest she put his life in peril. So the whole business goes rather wider than Mr.Rushdie himself.

These fanatics—they are a minority within the Moslem religion and let us make that point absolutely clear—must be told firmly and clearly by the Government that in this country we do not intend to give up freedom of speech, which has been fought for over the centuries by men of courage who were prepared to endure martyrdom for the right of free men to speak their minds without fear or favour. We have cause to remember in this country—and indeed in Europe and throughout the world—that book burning is usually followed by people burning. Do not forget that it was the book burners in Nazi Germany who were the predecessors of the horror camps of Auschwitz and Belsen. We should remember that when we appear to take a lenient view of what is happening at the present time.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, raised the question of the law of blasphemy. I shall not go into the issue in great detail but I agree that if there is any attempt to exend it there will be very grave difficulties indeed. Lawsuit after lawsuit will follow the refusal of the extension of the blasphemy law to one religious sect or another.

It is my opinion, and only my personal opinion, that there is only one answer to the law of blasphemy. It should be repealed forthwith. I hope that following the debate the Government will heed the call of the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, to deal with the matter quickly. The Moslem community, and indeed every other person and every other sect in this country, must be made aware that it is not and never will be the law in Britain to allow any individual or any group to call for the death of another person. If we once lose hold of that, we are well on the road to perdition.

7.2 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. We all agree that it is an immensely serious matter. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for introducing the debate. We look forward with great interest to the Minister's reply.

I was faced with a most embarrassing situation on a Saturday afternoon last year. I had been invited by the chairman of the Manchester Council of Mosques to give greetings on the Prophet's birthday on behalf of the Christian Churches to those who were assembled in Manchester City Hall. When I arrived at the town hall I discovered that Dr. Siddiqui was on the platform. When he spoke I had no doubt whatever of the nature of what was being said and the response that he was trying to elicit from some 300 Moslems who were present, virtually all men, and including a number of youngsters, whose banners were around the walls.

I was then faced with the decision of whether to walk out at that moment. I decided not to do so for two reasons. First, I had been invited to give greetings to the Moslem community of Manchester. I was anxious to do so because I believe passionately, as do all of us here, in good relationships between Moslems and others in our communities in Britain today. Those about whom we are speaking are British citizens and I wished to say something to them on that occasion. Secondly, I knew that I would have the opportunity of showing my disgust at what had been said from the platform and the way in which the audience was being manipulated. I was able to do that and I hope that the point was taken by those who were present.

I do not believe that anybody in the United Kingdom should be able to make such threats with inpugnity to a British citizen or anyone living in this country. That should be clearly understood in the future. It may be that what we are primarily concerned with now is the future rather than the past. It is the duty of government and the legal system, however it is done, to make it absolutely clear that such conduct is intolerable.

I should like to say a few words about the role of the Churches in the very difficult situation that has arisen since the publication of The Satanic Verses. With other leaders of the Churches, I have had meetings in my own diocese with Moslem leaders. I believe that they are representative of many in their communities. It is good that the point has been made by a number of noble Lords that the death threats that have been uttered have not been representative of the views of the majority in the Moslem community. That is important to understand because those who make the most noise do not necessarily represent the majority. We also need to understand that it demands very considerable courage for those in positions of leadership in the Moslem communities to stand up and be counted in going against the death threats. We know perfectly well of a Moslem leader in Belgium, I believe it was, who lost his life on that very issue. It is important for us to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are called upon to lead their communities when passions are running high and to realise what courage it takes.

What leaders of the Moslem communities want us to appreciate is the depth of offence that has been caused by the publication of The Satanic Verses. I have read the book with some care. It is not an easy book to read. Although I greatly admire Salman Rushdie as a writer and a master of the English language, I can understand something of the depth of offence that has been caused, although only those who speak from within that religious tradition would appreciate it. It is a pity that many other issues in the book have not been noticed. The hardest things that were said by Salman Rushdie have been directed at Britain and racism in British society. Things that are said about many of us do not bear repeating in this House. However, that is what free speech is all about.

The Moslem leaders have been asking for more support from the Christian community and I wish with all my heart that we had been able to give them that support. I took their request to the Northern Church Leaders Conference last year. We devoted three-quarters of an hour to discussion of what we were being asked to do—backing the campaign to withdraw the book from library shelves and from public display in book shops and stopping the printing of a paperback edition. I am afraid that there was no real support from the leaders of the Christian communities and I had to take that message to them. I believe that they were very disappointed.

It is important to appreciate why there was so little support from the Churches for these demands. Part of the reason is that we are all penitent in the Churches, or we should be. We know perfectly well that if one goes back in history we have burnt books and their authors. We have been on the side of repression and intolerance again and again. It is well catalogued. It is no good the Churches saying that other people have also done so. Even liberal humanists may perhaps have had their lapses. That is not good enough. We should be penitent about what has been experienced by the Church.

However, we may believe that God has been teaching us a better way in the sense of tolerance and of accepting a great deal of criticism and abuse and of not reacting by trying to persecute authors in that way. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, referred to a letter in The Times which I have not seen. A clergyman in my diocese has pointed to the obvious truth: that Jesus Christ was executed on a charge of blasphemy. It is good to remember that.

On the law of blasphemy, one of the demands of the Moslem leaders was that we should press for an extension of the blasphemy law to cover Islam among other religions. Many of us have felt unable to go down that road and have supported the majority recommendation of the Law Commission, although the Churches are divided about retention of the present blasphemy law. With other noble Lords, I hold the view strongly that it ought to be repealed.

In my understanding, God does not need that kind of protection. Perhaps if the Government were courageous enough to repeal the law—I do not believe that it would take much courage, but only the time to do so—it would be necessary to have a strengthening of community relations and public order legislation in order to provide protection.

We must all appreciate the fact that there is a difference between being shocked, offended and disgusted by writings which are published, perhaps against the founder of a religion, and actually taking action against such offence in legal terms. That is part of what toleration is about. We can say to our Moslem friends that we appreciate the depth of offence that has been caused to them.

I believe that many of us should give a little more of our time to studying why that depth of offence has been caused. For example, I recommend the book written by Dr. Shabir Akhtar entitled Be Careful with Mohammad. Dr. Akhtar is a lecturer at Bradford University and one of the leaders of the Moslem community. He has set out some of the grounds for the offence which has been caused. We need to hear those Moslem voices speaking to us about the issue.

The Rushdie controversy does not come from nowhere; it comes partly from Moslem experience in Britain. In many senses that has not been happy. How many times do we hear noble Lords in this House proclaim what a tolerant society Britain is? Yes and no; the experience of many people in the Moslem communities is not of tolerance but of gross intolerance. It takes the form of racial attacks and immigration laws which they believe discriminate against them. We need to hear those voices speaking to us.

It is sad that the Rushdie controversy has made matters worse. When one hears of gangs of white youths shouting the praises of Salman Rushdie in the streets and then attacking Asians, or when one hears that mosques are being daubed with pro-Rushdie slogans, one appreciates how much damage is being caused.

In addition to a proper care and concern for the man at the centre of the great row—the man who is suffering so much as a result—we must also have a care and concern for members of ethnic minorities in the Moslem communities in this country. We must try to ensure that the tragic episode does not damage further community relations. I stress the need for understanding and consultation.

When one looks around the Benches in this House one appreciates that there is not a single noble Lord of the Moslem faith; that is, not so far as I am aware, unless there has been a last-minute conversion of which I have not heard. The same comment applies to the other place; there are very few Moslems there. If this House were properly reformed, it may be possible to secure the representation of people who do not come through the normal electoral system. But perhaps I am straying too far from the subject.

I regard the matter as being immensely serious. Somehow the threats must be checked and stopped in any possible way. However, at the same time we must stretch out our hands in understanding and listen to what is being said to us by members and leaders of the Moslem communities.

7.14 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for enabling us to have a short debate upon a matter which has caused acute public concern in this country for well over 12 months. The noble Lord and others have covered the ground thoroughly and perhaps I may be allowed to summarise the matter briefly.

On 14th February 1989 the late Ayatollah Khomeini said: The author of The Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death". All Moslems were urged to execute Mr. Rushdie and his publishers "wherever they find them".

Mr. Rushdie denied the blasphemy charge, but later on 18th February 1990 he made a statement expressing "profound regret" that the book had distressed Moslems. The apology was not accepted in Iran. Since then there have been acts of violence in many countries and a large number of people have been killed and injured.

In this country there have been strident public protests by the Moslem community and the call for Mr. Rushdie's death has been repeated here. It is fair to say that protests in this country have, on the whole, been peaceful although some leaders have repeated the call for execution. As the noble Lord reminded us, on 14th February 1989 The Times reported that Mr. Sayad Abdul Quddus, the Secretary of the Bradford Council of Mosques, said that Mr. Rushdie deserved to pay the penalty by "hanging".

Those and similar exhortations have been profoundly disturbing and disappointing because, subject to some resevations expressed by the right reverend Prelate, it had seemed to most of us that the Moslem community had settled down in this country and were accepting our laws. We recognise that they have their own religious observances, their own traditions and their own culture which we must respect. But I think they know that these must be practised within the laws of this country.

There is no alternative to that, and as the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, said, those who break the law must take the consequences. We are fortunate to live in a free society, and we do not forget that it has taken centuries to achieve and develop such a society. Countless numbers have sacrificed and died to secure and preserve freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom under the law. People have come to this country over the years not for the sake of the weather but to enjoy the freedoms which have cost the British so dear. We rejoice to see the peoples of eastern Europe severing their bonds. It is a great yearning for freedom which inspires them.

But we have been taught that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Those of our Moslem friends who take the command of religious leaders seriously must pause to consider the implications of carrying it out.

Mr. Rushdie, a British citizen, has been deprived of his freedom for over 12 months because his life is under threat. This is something new in our experience, and we do not like it. Personally, I am not attracted to Mr. Rushdie's book; I found The Satanic Verses turgid and hard going although the style may be good. It is not a bedside book. Regretfully he has also said some less than pleasant things about this country in his writings. But that does not begin to justify the arrogant, indefensible and wicked sentence of death pronounced on him in Iran.

Books which defame the Christian faith and its founder have been published in this country, and films which are offensive to many of us have been shown in cinemas. But there has been no violent public reaction here. Some may say that this is because we are no longer a Christian country and that people are indifferent. I do not share that view.

I believe that even if church attendance has declined there is a strong underlying respect for Christianity in this country, and also a deepseated belief in freedom of speech. It would be a profound mistake for anyone to underestimate the latent strength of that feeling in Britain.

My noble friend Lord Houghton has made some important points about the blasphemy law. It is argued that the blasphemy law protects the Christian religion and that it should be extended to other religions. It has certainly not been invoked extensively in recent times, apart from the Gay News trial in 1979. But the books that I have mentioned which are offensive to Christians of all denominations have been published here without legal action being taken under the blasphemy law. The case brought by the British Moslem Action Front, which seeks to have Mr. Rushdie and his publishers tried under our blasphemy laws, is now before the court and we must await the result of that application.

However, we need to think very carefully about our blasphemy laws. Like my noble friend Lord Stoddart and the right reverend Prelate, my personal reaction at this stage is that it would be preferable to repeal the blasphemy laws as they stand rather than to extend them to include other faiths. There are other laws to deal with violence and incitement to violence and relevant offences and, as the right reverend Prelate rightly said, we would need to consider new laws to deal with a new situation.

What is depressing and unacceptable is that the death threat has been reaffirmed by the spiritual leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, on 9th February. He said that the fatwa or religious decree: remains in force and must be implemented". Following that, the director of the Moslem Institute, upon his return from a visit to Iran to discuss the Rushdie affair, said: He is up for the high jump. We are a very, very angry people". The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in reply to a Question on 19th February said that the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions had considered very carefully all the evidence relating to death threats, had taken the opinion of senior counsel and had come to the conclusion that it did not justify prosecution.

We take that very seriously coming as it does from the noble and learned Lord whom we all respect. However, a number of Moslem leaders have come very close to the brink with some very inflammatory speeches. In my view two at least have gone over the brink. I have already referred to Mr. Sayad Quddus of Bradford and to the director of the Moslem Institute. On 10th February, The Times reported Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, an articulate speaker who understands the meaning of words, saying of the latest fatwa: This is not a death threat, it is a death sentence and will be carried out by the political and judicial authority of Islam, not by private citizens". Those are, to say the least, provocative words. I realise that there are sensitive political considerations in this case but care must always be taken not to put the law at risk for political reasons.

The death threats have been repeated in protests and demonstrations in various parts of the country. Young Moslems are especially susceptible to the words of their leaders. As the noble Lord said, it seems that there is significant evidence available, but I must repeat that there are moderate Moslem leaders who advocate respect for British law. On 20th February I suggested that they might be asked by one of Her Majesty's Ministers from the Home Office to join in a plea for moderation to the minority of Moslems in this country who have taken the death threat seriously.

As the right reverend Prelate said, there is a welcome in this country for the Moslem community and it has an important contribution to make to our economic and cultural life. However, I must say this—and I believe that I am speaking for every Member of this House, of all parties and of none—that there is no room in this country for extreme fundamentalism and all it implies. All political parties in this country have rightly condemned the death threats without reservation. They also uphold Mr. Rushdie's right to publish his book. Furthermore, we believe that Moslems who feel deeply about the book have the right to demonstrate peacefully about it. Finally, all of us support Mr. Rushdie's right to receive protection.

There remains the question: for how long must the protection continue? The answer must be that it must continue for as long as his life appears to be in danger; that is, until the death threats are withdrawn. Perhaps the noble Lord will say whether he agrees with that conclusion. Mr. Rafsanjani and his colleagues in Iran have their difficulties, as we know. However, he will wish to consider those matters very carefully. We in this country are not concerned to interfere with the internal affairs of Iran. However, let it be made plain that the people of this country, of all parties and of none, will not tolerate interference in our affairs. That must be understood in Iran and elsewhere. Nevertheless, our aim is to promote greater understanding between cultures in this country and to improve relations between Iran and ourselves. That is very much in the interests of both countries. Our partners in the Community and our allies share that objective and I hope that the Government will do all they can to press that home upon the Iranian Government.

They must also be left under no illusion that in this country British law comes first, as the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, said. No one is above the law in this country. This crisis—and that was a word used by my noble friend Lord Stoddart—will only be resolved if that is clearly understood both here and in Iran.

7.25 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, the Question which the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has asked your Lordships this evening is one of considerable gravity and importance. First, in replying to this short debate I should like to return to the terms of the noble Lord's Question for the Question seeks a further statement as to the reasons for the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute those who allegedly have threatened the life of Mr. Salman Rushdie.

It must, I know, be common ground that any conduct on the part of any person within this jurisdiction which amounts to the offence of incitement to murder must be regarded as a matter of extreme gravity. Perhaps I may say how very much I agreed with the words of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition when he referred to the view which we must all take of disgust at the threat which comes from over the seas from Iran.

The fact that the offence of incitement to murder is of extreme gravity is, I assure your Lordships, the publicly declared view of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and it will remain his policy, with the full support of my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General, to deal accordingly with evidence establishing such conduct which may be placed before the director; the same would certainly apply to threats to kill.

Although the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred to some other incidents, his own speech and this debate has really been concerned mainly with statements made by Dr. Kalim Siddiqui. Quite obviously many of your Lordships will have seen extracts on the television news from the speech made by Dr. Siddiqui at Manchester City Hall on 21st October 1989. Indeed this evening we have had the advantage of hearing the views of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester who was present on that occasion.

The Director of Public Prosecutions and leading counsel who advised him have had the benefit of viewing a video of the entire speech, a copy having been obtained from the BBC by court order. His judgment was that the evidence was not sufficient to justify the institution of criminal proceedings.

Perhaps I may say that the Director of Public Prosecutions is an independent public official, a lawyer of great distinction and experience and before he became director, he was the first senior Treasury counsel in criminal matters at the Old Bailey.

I go further. His decision that there was not sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution in this case was supported by the views of leading counsel and indeed all the other lawyers who considered the matter. That said, having listened to this evening's debate there is no denying the sense of outrage which has been caused by the remarks as they were presented on the television news. However, it is important that the process of arriving at a decision as to whether or not to bring a prosecution should be no different than in any other case.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, quite understandably spoke of the need for full equality before the law. Every citizen is entitled to expect consistency from the prosecuting authorities. The criteria to be applied when considering institution or continuation of criminal proceedings are set out in the code for Crown prosecutors which was issued pursuant to Section 10 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985.

The very first question to be determined—and I emphasise the importance of the sequence—is the sufficiency of the evidence. The code says that a prosecution should not be started or continued unless a crown prosecutor is satisfied that there is admissible, substantial and reliable evidence that a criminal offence known to the law has been committed by an identifiable person. The Crown Prosecution Service does not, and I venture to suggest should not, institute proceedings on the basis that a bare prima facie case is enough. Rather it will apply the test of whether there is a realistic prospect of a conviction. Where such a test is satisfied, the Crown Prosecution Service will then go on to consider whether the public interest, about which so many of your Lordships have spoken with great feeling, requires a prosecution.

The Royal Commission on Criminal Procedures, which led to the establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service, considered in some detail the criteria which should be applied before a prosecution was begun. The commission reached this conclusion: Someone should not be put on trial if it can be predicted, with some confidence, that he is more likely than not to be acquitted, since it is both unfair to the accused and a waste of the restricted resources of the criminal justice system". As your Lordships who are learned in the law know much better than I, the proper way to approach any criminal case is to begin by considering whether there is sufficient evidence to meet that test, and only if there is such evidence then to look to the public interest. If in any instance, through loud public clamour for a prosecution, however understandable, a prosecuting authority were to set aside that first requirement to identify sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction, then surely it would be betraying a most important principle of justice. That road could ultimately lead to political prosecutions.

The report also had this to say: a person should not be accused of an offence and brought before a court simply to allay public disquiet or to satisfy public demand or prejudice". I know that none of your Lordships will dissent from that statement of principle.

Inevitably, however, cases of great notoriety will from time to time arise—and no doubt this is one—where the degree of public distaste and even revulsion for what has been said or done is very great. Such cases place great demands on the integrity and courage of the prosecution authorities. It may well, therefore, be worth repeating that the director regards as a matter of extreme gravity any conduct on the part of any person within this jurisdiction which amounts to the offence of incitement to murder or to a threat to kill someone. He will deal accordingly with evidence establishing such conduct as may be placed before him. Having seen the whole of the video of the entire speech on 21st October it was plain to all who viewed it that there was insufficient evidence to show that Dr. Siddiqui was soliciting or proposing the murder of Mr. Rushdie.

I have concentrated on the decision not to prosecute Dr. Siddiqui because this has attracted the most interest and because it is an instance in which a police report has been received. There have been two other instances in which a police report has been received concerning death threats, neither of which produced sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution. The Crown Prosecution Service's function is to consider such evidence as is brought to it, save that it may sometimes suggest a further line of inquiry.

I should add that although no prosecutions have been brought for incitement to murder Mr. Rushdie of for threats to kill, there have been a number of instances in which prosecutions for public order offences have followed scenes of public disorder that have arisen from demonstrations against Mr. Rushdie or Penguin Books. The evidence in those cases was sufficient to meet the proper test. There is accordingly no room at all for any suggestion that there is one set of standards applied to one group in this country and another to the majority of the population. But that charge might indeed be soundly based if for some invalid reason the normal and proper test for a prosecting decision were to be set aside in any particular type of case.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, asked whether the Director of Public Prosecutions had asked special branches of the police to take co-ordinated action in order to produce evidence. As he knows, the Director of Public Prosecutions does not have the power to control police investigations, but on 6th March 1989 all chief Crown prosecutors were instructed to forward to the Crown Prosecution Service headquarters any papers concerning allegations of incitement to murder or threats to kill Mr. Salman Rushdie and were told that matters previously dealt with should also be submitted. The Crown Prosecution Service instruction of that date was intended to ensure, first, that decision-making would be at an appropriately senior level. Your Lordships would be concerned if the decision now being debated had not been taken by the director personally. Secondly, the Crown Prosecution Service instruction of 6th March was also made to try to ensure consistency of decision-making.

That said, it is of course for the police to take notice of and respond to local incidents arising out of The Satanic Verses controversy. As I said, the director himself does not and cannot investigate. However, perhaps I may say that the recent decision of the director does not preclude consideration of any further references alleged to constitute an incitement. Indeed, I should like to assure your Lordships that any material suggesting active steps to carry out the death threat would be investigated by the police, who are vigilant in their steps to protect Mr. Rushdie.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord one question. He has referred to a communication from the Director of Public Prosecutions to chief Crown prosecutors. Perhaps I could ask whether they were requested to draw this matter to the attention of each chief constable in the force areas concerned.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I confess that I do not know the answer to that question. But I must reiterate that as I understand it there is no power under the statute for the Director of Public Prosecutions in any way to direct police forces as to how they should investigate. Although in his speech the noble Lord said he felt that this was something I would say, nevertheless I have to say it because it is the case. If I may I will certainly write to the noble Lord in answer to the specific question.

Perhaps I may quickly turn to the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who made a very interesting intervention about the constitutional aspects of this matter. First—I realise I am repeating this but I think it is wise to do so—there was unanimity of view by the Crown Prosecution Service lawyers, the Director of Public Prosecutions and independent counsel that the evidence was insufficient in the case of Dr. Siddiqui's speech of 21st October.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will deal with the point of whether the matter was brought to the attention of the Attorney-General personally, because that affects relations with his fellow Minister at the Home Office.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I shall answer the noble and learned Lord's question in a moment, if I may. Perhaps I may say, with respect, that remarks about bringing prosecutions on public interest grounds give the Government a little cause for anxiety. The converse should not and does not occur. In other words, prosecutions on public interest grounds, even though the evidence is insufficient, might occur.

It is one of the hallmarks of our system that prosecuting decisions are taken wholly independently of government and free from party political considerations. That said, the noble and learned Lord went on to talk about consultation by the Attorney-General with ministerial colleagues. Of course, Cabinet involvement in prosecution decision-making brought down the government in the case to which the noble and learned Lord referred in his speech; namely, the Campbell case. The Attorney-General may certainly consult colleagues about public interest issues—for example, the impact of a prosecution on relationships with a foreign country—and colleagues may inform the Attorney-General of matters of which he should be aware but may not tell him what, in their view, the decision should be.

The noble and learned Lord asked an absolutely direct question. Perhaps I may say that the Director of Public Prosecutions consulted my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General who concurred in the Director of Public Prosecution's decisions.

That brings me finally in answering questions to the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn and Lord Stoddart, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. All three said that the blasphemy laws should go. I simply remind your Lordships that the Law Commission, in its 1985 report on offences against religion and public worship, considered this question and recommended by a majority that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished. However, a minority took the view that the existing common law offence should be repealed and replaced with a criminal offence which would apply to all religions.

That illustrates the fact that there was no agreement on the best way forward. The Government are keeping the matter under review but at present there are no plans to change the law. That said, perhaps I may tell the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, that Ministers have made clear on many occasions that while the Government understand the distress which Mr. Rushdie's book has caused to Moslems, death threats and threats of violence generally are wholly unacceptable. As I said, that has been made clear on many occasions.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester very well captured in his speech the dilemma which those concerned with a decision on this case must have faced. The right reverend Prelate felt affronted by the manner in which his presence at the meeting had been abused. We all share the right reverend Prelate's disgust at the bigoted and terrifying tactics of the Iranian leaders responsible for the issue of the fatwa but we must direct our wrath to such action as is open to Her Majesty's Government against those primarily responsible for the present circumstances. We cannot punish sincere and responsible Moslems for the extremes of their religious leaders in Iran. They wish to live in peace in this country and enjoy the freedoms that we cherish, including freedom of speech and a right to practise one's chosen religion free from fear.

Dr. Siddiqui's words offended our sense of freedom, justice and liberty. However, incitement to murder is a serious charge which can be preferred only when justified by objective assessment of the evidence. The fact is that each instance relating to this debate that has been presented to the Crown Prosecution Service has been examined at high level—in the case of Dr. Siddiqui by the Director of Public Prosecutions himself. In each instance there has been insufficient evidence to justify a prosecution. For that reason alone the conclusion has been reached that a prosecution should not be commenced.

House adjourned at sixteen minutes before eight o'clock.