Justice minister Maria Eagle has told MPs that the government may support the removal of blasphemy from the statute books.
She was speaking in the House of Commons during the debate on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.
MPs from all sides criticised the government for pushing the legislation forward with just over eight hours of debate on topics ranging from a new offence to incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation to the defence of military installations and prostitution.
Proposals to criminalise strikes by prison officers were also included in the Bill.
Lib Dem Justice spokesman David Heath summed up the mood:
“If the House is prepared to forgo its responsibility to consider some of the most basic legislation that we are here to consider – criminal law – and to sub-contract it to the other place (the House of Lords) to do the job that we are supposed to do, all the guff about the primacy of the House of Commons and how important this place is as a debating Chamber means absolutely nothing.
“These are matters of life and liberty and we are being asked to pass them on the nod because of a timetable exercise by the Whips, against the interests of the Department that leads on the Bill.
“We are asked to believe that there is no time in January, in a Session that started in November, to find a second day for a Bill that comprises two volumes, 176 clauses and 34 schedules, and to which hundreds of substantive amendments have been tabled today.
“Many of us could have tabled many more amendments if we had felt that there was the slightest chance that they would be considered.”
Shadow Secretary of State for Justice Nick Herbert mocked the government for reintroducing a ban on strikes by prison officers three years after they legalised them.
Heckled by a Labour MP that it would be no surprise that the Tories would be supporting the government on this matter he said:
“Of course it is no surprise as we introduced the power and it was clearly a mistake to rescind it in the first place.
“I would like to congratulate the Secretary of State on his conversion to Thatcherite trade union reforms and on his recognition of the protections they afford the country.
“When the Prime Minister invited Lady Thatcher to Downing Street for tea just a few months ago, we could hardly have thought that it would yield such impressive results.
“I suggest that the Justice Secretary invite my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (former Tory leader Michael Howard) in for a cup of tea in order to advise him further on how to introduce more of such legislation.”
The ban on strikes by prison officers passed by 481 to 46 with Lib Dem and Conservative support.
35 Labour rebels, among them prominent leftwingers Diane Abbott and Jon Cruddas, defied the government.
Proposals to protect people when defending their home or other people also passed.
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw lost no time in telling the house of his personal experience of the issue:
“The purpose of our provisions is to amend and clarify for the better the law on self-defence.
“This is a matter of considerable public concern.
“The House will know of my experiences on four separate occasions of seeking to apprehend someone – there was one burglar and three street robbers.
“Anyone who has been involved in such circumstances, or who knows of someone who has, will know that on such occasions there is no time to make a careful, fine judgment about the balance of the law.
“One does these things instinctively. Where people act reasonably, in good faith, the law should clearly be on their side.”
Tory spokesman Nick Herbert accused him of merely “restating case law.”
The surprise of the debate was Maria Eagle’s support on behalf of the government for a proposal from Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris to abolish laws against blasphemy.
She said that a short consultation with the Church of England was necessary.
After that the government intended to abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.
Dr Evan Harris’ original proposal won support from MPs of all parties.
The BBC reports that many Labour members, who were whipped to vote against the amendment, were unhappy because they supported its aims.
“The Almighty does not really need the protection of these ridiculous laws and that’s why large numbers of people of a religious perspective share the view that these offences need to be abolished,” Dr Harris told the House.
The abolition of blasphemy laws is supported by Humanists and some Christians.
Simon Barrow, co-director of Christian think tank Ekklesia, commented:
“Privileging one religion above other views is indefensible in a democracy, and for Christians there is the added irony that Christ was himself arraigned on a charge of blasphemy.
“Using the law to attack opinions about belief is to misuse it, and suggesting that God needs protection against free speech makes no theological sense at all.
“The Christian message is about the power of self-giving love, not the love of one’s own power. This is why it is wrong religiously as well as legally and democratically.”
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has also spoken out against blasphemy laws.
Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said:
“The abolition of the outdated blasphemy laws is long overdue. Those laws are supported neither by the public nor by the courts, as evidenced by the recent refusal by the High Court to allow a blasphemy case against the BBC director general to go ahead.
“The blasphemy laws in the UK, which protect only Anglican beliefs in any case, are clearly contrary to the principle of free speech, are probably contrary to human rights laws which protect freedom of expression, and are totally out-of-place in the context of our increasingly diverse and increasingly non-religious society.”
Civil rights group Liberty said that blasphemy laws may violate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects free speech.
In 1977 newspaper Gay News and its editor were found guilty of blasphemous libel.
The case, the first of its kind in 50 years, was a private prosecution brought by “morality” campaigner Mary Whitehouse.
In 1976 Gay News published a poem and illustration concerning a gay Roman soldier’s love for Christ at the Crucifixion.
The paper was unsuccessfully defended by author and QC John Mortimer.
Gay News editor Denis Lemon received a nine-month suspended jail sentence and a £500 fine.
Gay News was fined £1,000 and a further £9,000 in court costs.
An appeal in 1978 was rejected by the Law Lords.